This past Saturday, nobody expected the UConn football team to beat No.18 Duke. After all, they were 22-point underdogs, but this game had slightly bigger stakes. On the sidelines at a rainy Rentschler Field was Cooper Flagg, the top recruit in college basketball’s 2024 class, on his official visit to UConn. Although Flagg was considered a Duke-lean, his decision being up in the air dubbed Saturday’s matchup “the Cooper Flagg Bowl.”
Basketball recruiting aside, the Huskies (0-4) put up an early fight, but the Blue Devils (4-0) were ultimately too much to handle. They fought hard to trail 7-0 after one quarter, but the floodgates opened soon after. Duke rattled off 20 second quarter points as the opening half saw Connecticut manage just 29 offensive yards.
“I’m proud of the way we came here and handled our business,” said Blue Devils coach Mike Elko. “It was great to go out there and get the job done, to get the early lead, to get out in front at halftime and then to kind of be able to put that thing away, so that we could rest a lot of our players in the fourth quarter and get a lot of guys some opportunities.”
It seemed like punter George Caratan was UConn’s most consistent contributor, punting seven times for 295 yards, doing a nice job making the most of what the offense gave him. Lately, that offense has been dismal in first halves with zero points over the past three games.
“The score doesn’t reflect it but it was a different football team on the sidelines and the field than it’s been the first three weeks in terms of the effort, intensity and the sense of passion to play well,” noted Huskies coach Jim Mora. “That’s what we’re going to build on…When you’re trying to build something, you gotta find things you can hang your hat on, and the very first thing you have to be able to hang your hat on is the attitude.”
The Huskies started the game with a solid few plays. Quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson contributed a six-yard rush and running back Victor Rosa added six of his own to notch a first down. Three fruitless plays later, Caratan got his number called for the first time of many. He punted the ball to the Blue Devils for the first time, who benefitted from a great return, but their first drive was surprisingly mediocre.
Running back Jordan Waters gained just two yards across two carries, putting the outcome of third down in the hands of quarterback Riley Leonard. Leonard has been incredible all season; a Heisman Trophy sleeper with a top 10 quarterback rating nationally. On his first pass, however, Leonard completely overthrew a wide open receiver for what would have been a touchdown. Duke punted it back to the Huskies.
In response, tight end Justin Joly dropped a catch that would’ve moved the sticks. It was the first of many drops by the Huskies as Caratan was ushered back out to kick it to the Devils. This time, Duke made Connecticut pay.
On the first play of the series, Jackson Mitchell, the heart and soul of the Huskies defense, got to Leonard late. He hit him around the facemask with the crown of his helmet, the general requirements of a targeting penalty, which results in an ejection. The play was initially reviewed to be just roughing the passer without targeting, but an unorthodox second review reversed the initial ruling. That sent Mitchell, one of the top tacklers in UConn football history, off the field early.
“I’ve coached a lot of football games in my life,” Mora began, discussing the ejection. “If you’re going to kick a guy out for that, then I’m the stupidest football coach.”
Four plays after the penalty, Waters put six on the scoreboard for the Blue Devils. The Huskies answered with a five-play drive — a common occurrence — and did their part in keeping Caratan’s boot warm. Duke’s ensuing drive lasted 13 plays and over six minutes, enduring a fourth down conversion. They ultimately had to settle for a 50-yard field goal, which Todd Pelino effortlessly floated through the uprights.
Things only got worse for UConn from there. After an incompletion, offensive coordinator Nick Charlton called for an option play. Roberson flipped the ball back to freshman wide receiver Bryan Domino, who let it slip through his hands. The Devils recovered on Connecticut’s 10-yard line and scored the next play.
The Huskies wrapped up their offensive half with three punts, with the defense allowing 10 additional points. It was 27-0 at the half. So far this year, UConn has been outscored 82-7 in the first half, a statistic that speaks for itself.
The second half didn’t get much better. Duke went three-and-out on their first drive and Rosa broke open a 39-yard rush on his second carry of the frame. Building on that big play, the Huskies mustered -10 yards on the ensuing three tries, ultimately leading to a missed 42-yarder from kicker Joe McFadden.
Duke missed a field goal of their own, but it mattered little. Two plays later, running back Jalen Mitchell got the pigskin poked out of his hands, leading to a Blue Devil recovery and subsequent “scoop n’ score.” Another effortless touchdown by Leonard near the conclusion of the third quarter was the final nail in the coffin, but the game was over well before halftime. A strong but meaningless drive in the waning seconds of the contest gave Roberson a rushing touchdown to make it a 41-7 final tally.
Needless to say, this was not the outcome many were hoping for, but it was the one that was largely expected. The Huskies began the season with hopes of going to a bowl game, though they’ve all but faded. The players still believe they can make something out of these last eight games.
“I have nothing but confidence in this team,” Roberson said. “I believe we can turn it around.”
Their chance to prove that belief comes this weekend at home against Utah State, a team that hasn’t impressed either thus far.