Down 24-3 at the half and having recently conceded a 64-yard touchdown, a lack of energy spread across the UConn football team, at least in defensive lineman Jelani Stafford’s eyes.
“It was not pretty,” Stafford said. “It was really disappointing.”
Right out of the gate in the second half, however, the atmosphere on the sidelines changed. Benefiting from two roughing the passer calls and burning 3:23 off the clock, UConn stormed down the field for their first touchdown of the night. Although wide receiver Brett Buckman almost broke free on a 40-yard reception and tight end Justin Joly’s lunge left his team at the one-yard line, Stafford stood center stage when he hit paydirt for the first time.
“I liked it,” the junior defensive tackle commented. “It is great, always, to score a touchdown as a big guy.”
Reinforcements also came from the Huskies’ defense, which forced six pass breakups and surrendered just 70 yards in the second half. In the end, however, the multi-faceted spark could not overcome a 21-point deficit as the Florida International Panthers escaped Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field with a 24-17 victory over the Huskies.
Even though Connecticut garnered 224 yards and outscored FIU 14-0 in the second half, head coach Jim Mora did not see many positives from his team.
“You are not going to win football games in college scoring 17 points,” Mora sternly stated. “The defense played great in the second half, but the offense had field position. They had three-and-outs; they had time and they scored 14 points. That is not good enough.”
Before that all happened, the Panthers played like the same team that hung 46 points on the North Texas Mean Green on Sept. 9, scoring just 153 seconds into the contest while running four plays on first down. UConn followed suit to earn their only points of the half on Joe McFadden’s 26-yard field goal, but even without collecting a turnover, FIU’s defense suffocated the opposing attack. From that drive until halftime, the Panthers conceded just two first downs and kept their defense on the field for 83 seconds per possession.
FIU’s Keyone Jenkins, meanwhile, had 240 yards through the air, over half of which came on three connections of 40+ yards. Eric Rivers had the only non-touchdown catch among those three, which went 48 yards, but FIU still kicked a field goal on that drive after the Huskies’ defense stood their ground in the red zone. The other two, a 45-yard dart to Jalen Bracey and a 64-yard rocket to Kris Mitchell, seemingly put the game out of reach.
Fast forward to the final frame, and Connecticut quickly spliced a 14-point deficit when running back Devontae Houston dusted the defense following quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson’s flicker for a 37-yard score. Two rough penalties, one being a targeting call on Mumu Bin-Wahad, nearly knocked the wind out of UConn’s sails as the Panthers reached the 15-yard line on the ensuing drive, but Chase Gabriel’s 32-yard field goal kick hooked left and kept the comeback bid alive. Even with the miss, the Huskies could not regain their mojo as Houston’s 10-yard rush marked the longest play across their next two offensive possessions.
Punting rather than going for it on fourth down did not seem like the popular move from the fans’ perspective at the time, but Coach Mora defended the decision while highlighting the team’s inability to move the ball, defensive momentum and having three timeouts left.
“That is what a smart football person does,” Mora explained.
It worked out for Connecticut, who got the ball back despite burning through all of their timeouts with over two minutes remaining. Although a defensive pass interference moved them 15 yards closer, UConn only mustered six total yards on their first three red zone snaps, unexpectedly setting the stage for a dramatic final two plays.
Floating across the left end zone sideline, Joly snatched Roberson’s desperate heave out of thin air seconds after the referees chucked their penalty markers. Replay review confirmed the catch, but now facing a 4th and 14 following a holding call, wide receiver Cameron Ross went down just short of the marker and ended the Huskies’ chances of forcing overtime.
“These are the games that you want to win,” Stafford noted. “Unfortunately, we did not get it done.”
Starting and completing a game for the first time in his five-year collegiate career, Roberson experienced major regression in the first half when he went 4-14 for 33 yards, but somewhat recovered with a mediocre 170 yards and a touchdown on 15 completions. For the second straight Saturday, Buckman became the redshirt junior’s favorite target with 62 yards on five receptions while Ross and Joly combined for 70.
Houston took most of the snaps in the run game while running back Victor Rosa fought back spasms, sprinting for 126 yards and recording a 37-yard touchdown reception. No player had more than 10 total tackles defensively, ending an eight-game streak dating back to last year’s meeting against FIU, with Jackson Mitchell’s eight leading the way.
Things could not be looking bleaker for Connecticut at this point in the season. The loss marked the second straight week where an opponent ranked lower on USA Today’s NCAA re-rank pulled off the upset, and more challenging foes loom in the distance. While the contest itself had more negatives than positives, the one piece of optimism Mora had laid the foundation for a potential rebound in UConn’s nine remaining games and for the team’s long-term goals.
“I will not let this program descend to what it was,” Mora proclaimed. “We are going to get this thing figured out. We will fight back.”
The Huskies (0-3) do not have an easy first step toward turning things around, however, as the No. 18 Duke Blue Devils (3-0) will enter East Hartford on Saturday. Kickoff in that contest, Connecticut’s first against a ranked opponent since the bowl-clinching upset of the then-No. 19 Liberty Flames last November, commences at 3:30 p.m. on CBSSN.