When QB J.T. Daniels came out of high school in 2018, Rivals rated him as the No. 4 prospect in his national class. He bounced around the upper echelon of the FBS, spending time at USC and Georgia, before going to West Virginia and now Rice. If you had told Daniels in 2018 that he’d give an 0-5 UConn team their first win in 2023, he’d probably say you were out of your mind. But after a hard-fought contest Saturday, that was both Daniels’ and UConn’s reality when the Huskies escaped Houston, Texas with their first victory of the campaign.
“Obviously it’s great to get a win against a good team,” head coach Jim Mora noted. “[It’s great] for us to be able to fight through the adversity we’ve faced the past five weeks, staying together, staying focused, keep working hard, keeping a good attitude, never giving up. Our offense made plays when they had to make plays. We had a couple takeaways on defense that helped us. We needed a win and to go on the road and get a win is a pretty big accomplishment given where we’ve been these first five weeks.”
Captain Jackson Mitchell, a linebacker, shared Mora’s sentiment after getting a win during a season that hasn’t lived up to the team’s expectations.
“It feels amazing,” said Mitchell. “Obviously we’ve been struggling at the beginning of the season, but to come on the road and get the much needed win is great for our confidence going into the bye week, and hopefully this is just the start of our run. The team played well. When the defense was struggling the offense helped out and when the offense was struggling the defense helped out. That’s what good team football is.”
The Huskies overcame a slow start and had little trouble putting a 14 point deficit behind them. They didn’t blow Rice away with an exceptional air attack; in fact, the Owls beat them in passing yardage 362-215. They didn’t win on the ground either. Connecticut only ran for 104 yards to Rice’s 112. With the home side outgaining UConn by 155 yards, what was the ultimate difference?
Uncharacteristic for the Huskies this season, they were the more disciplined squad. Though the penalty numbers were comparable, Connecticut made their mark with their takeaways. It’s a facet of their game that has been missing as of late. Going into the contest, they’d only recorded three turnovers;but with three fumble recoveries and a pick Saturday, the Huskies made Rice pay for every mistake.
“It’s always a point of emphasis,” Mora mentioned on the team’s 4-0 turnover advantage. “It’s not anything new. Every defensive team in America talks about taking the ball away. They kind of come in bunches; you get momentum, you make a couple of plays and guys get hungry. The turnovers and our offense got us back in the game when we were down 14-0. More than anything, it wasn’t the turnovers, it was the resilience of the players.”
Connecticut opened the game like many of their others. As with three of their five first matchups, they forced a three and out on the opening defensive possession. Starting in plus territory, the Huskies managed a lone first down before K Joe McFadden missed a 43-yard field goal. The defense, which has often struggled after short offensive possessions, allowed a quick Rice touchdown. And then another. Things seemed to be spiraling for UConn in the way they had been in the previous five games – and there were still three quarters of football to play.
After another punt, the defense trotted onto the field while many expected them to let the Owls easily notch a third score. Instead, two plays in, DL Pryce Yates delivered a big hit to Daniels and forced a fumble. DL (and RB) Jelani Stafford fell on the ball, giving the Huskies possession one yard away from the end zone. Stafford, who has thrived in his two-way role as a short yardage RB, punched the ball in for the score. Though McFadden couldn’t convert on his second straight PAT, UConn had hope.
It took just two plays for Rice to make another fatal error. Daniels tried a lateral pass to a receiver who nonchalantly dropped the ball, thinking it had gone forward. Mitchell took advantage of the live ball on the turf and took it 50 yards for the scoop-n-score.
On the defense’s third straight phenomenal possession, the Huskies forced Rice’s punt team out three plays after the offense started. UConn made their way down the field, converting a pair of first downs with a steady dose of TE Justin Joly and RB Victor Rosa. Then came Ta’Quan Roberson. The former Penn State QB launched a 41-yard missile into WR Cameron Ross’ hands, giving the Huskies their first lead of the day. It was an unusual display of passing success from Connecticut, but regardless, it gave them the halftime advantage.
Consistent with their careless play in the second quarter, the Owls muffed a punt after the Huskies offense opened with a three and out. On a short field, the Huskies marched down, leading to another Stafford score.
“Our offense played fantastic today,” Mora said. “We put 38 points up. They’re coming into their own. You see the things Ta’Quan [Roberson]’s doing. He’s growing up every week. With more reps he’s becoming a better and better leader of this offense.”
Rice finally managed to gain composure on their next drive with a 14 play series that took up over half of a quarter. It ended in WR Luke McCaffrey’s – Christian’s brother – first touchdown of the day on a short catch.
Rosa and WR Kevens Clercius each contributed big gains for over 20 yards, but that was all they could manage before McFadden was sent out to nail a 47-yarder. After a pair of empty possessions for each team, Daniels found McCaffrey for his second score of the day, putting Rice within three.
The Huskies began to put together another successful drive, trying to put the game to bed. Two snaps in, Roberson found Joly in the middle of the field on a slant. Joly broke a tackle to win the sprint against the defense, going 59 yards to the house.
“It felt good to have that breakaway,” Joly said. “I knew I had to beat one more guy and that let us get the touchdown and get that extra score that we needed.”
Connecticut allowed a field goal, but that was all the Owls managed for the remainder of the match. The Huskies emerged with their first win of the season — one that was convincing and full of heart.
They play next after a bye week, coming back home against USF, a team that beat Rice by 13, at 3:30 p.m. in East Hartford.