In a matter of two plays, the UConn football team experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Jelani Stafford, a defensive tackle who had a rushing touchdown and caught a pass, rumbled into the end zone with 40 seconds remaining for his second score of the contest. All the Huskies needed was to kick a field goal for the extra point to again tie the Utah State Aggies in an explosive second half.
That was one of their decisions, at least. Head coach Jim Mora also had the option of attempting a two-point conversion in that situation, but the choices left him scrambling until the snap.
“I contemplated it,” Mora said about going for two. “When you have those two factors [offensive momentum and the defense not allowing points] going in your favor, then you certainly want it to go to overtime.”
UConn ultimately settled on the PAT, but Utah State safety Ike Larsen audibly blocked Joe McFadden’s kick in a blur. Cheers suddenly became groans for many of the 21,000+ fans in attendance at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field as the Aggies crushed Connecticut’s contest-equalizing chances. That block and the ensuing onside kick recovery sealed the Aggies’ 34-33 comeback victory in a high noon shootout, one where the Huskies led 17-7 at halftime.
“That is about as disappointing as it gets,” Mora said afterward. “You fight your way back into a back-and-forth game, and to lose it like that is pretty devastating.”
Utah State’s special teams swat overshadowed anything UConn did offensively. Quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson finished with a career-high 255 yards and two touchdowns; wide receiver Cameron Ross caught seven passes for 70 yards; defensive back Cam Edwards rushed for a career-best 73 yards on 13 carries; wide receiver Geordon Porter finished with 62 total yards and a receiving touchdown.
“It all comes down to execution,” Ross commented regarding Connecticut’s offense. “We just executed on plays more.”
Holistically, the Huskies recorded 473 total yards, exceeding the numbers they posted in any of their 13 games last season. UConn scored over 30 points in a contest for the first time since extinguishing the then-No. 19 Liberty Flames at the Rent on Nov. 12, 2022.
Scoring no more than 17 points in every game since that postseason-clinching upset, each one of them ending in defeat, Connecticut matched that total in just one half despite Aggies safety Devin Dye intercepting Roberson’s third pass on the opening drive. Linebacker Jackson Mitchell, one week removed from getting ejected for targeting in the first quarter of a blowout loss against the then-No. 18 Duke Blue Devils, returned the favor when he snared Utah State quarterback McCae Hillstead’s pass at the speed of sound.
Porter followed suit with a 34-yard scamper down the right sideline, setting the tone for a run-heavy drive culminating in Stafford barreling into paydirt for his second touchdown in three weeks. Two plays later, Aggies wide receiver Colby Bowman’s bobble became the Huskies’ gain as Chris Shearin collected the deflection for the team’s second interception of the frame and season. Going for it on fourth down in the red zone early in the second quarter, tight end Nick Harris hauled in Roberson’s floater for his first-career touchdown.
After turning the ball over on downs in the red zone on their ensuing possession, UConn redeemed themselves with a Joe McFadden 36-yard field goal that burned over five minutes off the clock. In the first 29 minutes of play, Utah State amassed 22 yards of offense and allowed Durante Jones’ first career sack, but prevented Connecticut from shutting them out when Bowman caught Hillstead’s dime for a 63-yard touchdown.
Down 10 at the half instead of 17, the Aggies marched out of the locker room and onto the field on their first drive of the second half. Senior Cooper Legas took over when Hillstead suffered a concussion, pulling Utah State within three when he found wide receiver Jalen Royals open for a 15-yard touchdown. Elliott Nimrod’s 37-yard field goal six minutes later tied the game at 17, but things got worse when Royals found a hole in the Huskies’ defense and sprinted down the left sideline for a go-ahead 71-yard touchdown.
While demoralizing, Utah State’s first lead of the afternoon reawakened the beast in UConn’s offense, which answered right back following Edwards’ numerous big rushes. Roberson connected with Victor Rosa for 16 yards to start the fourth, then found Porter wide open in the end zone for a game-tying 28-yard strike and Porter’s first score as a Husky.
Not even that stalemate lasted long as Royals notched his third touchdown of the half five plays later when he left Shearin in the dust for 52 yards. In all, the junior wide receiver finished with a career-high 185 receiving yards and three touchdowns on seven catches. Both teams subsequently exchanged field goals and three-and-outs for a 34-24 Aggie lead, leaving 161 seconds on the clock for Connecticut’s biggest drive of the day.
Ross snagged Roberson’s risky throw in double coverage on the first snap, highlighting a possession where the redshirt junior went 5/6 and got his team down to the two-yard line. While loudly chanting “let’s go UConn” during an extensive video review, fans felt pure elation on Stafford’s second touchdown and had it violently taken away when cornerback Al Ashford III recovered the blocked ball. While the Huskies’ chances at a second straight bowl game thinned further at 0-5, hope remains in the air for a season turnaround in the Heart of New England.
“The only thing we can do is continue to stay together, fight our way out of this, find ways to improve as a team,” Mora stated. “That is what we intend to do.”
That potential adjustment begins Saturday when UConn becomes the first team in Houston since the UConn men’s basketball team won the national championship on April 4. Kickoff versus the Rice Owls (3-2), one of the newest programs in the American Athletic Conference, takes place at Rice Stadium at 5 p.m. EDT on ESPN+.