Huskies survive against Maine, 24-21 on late 37-yarrd FG by Puyol.
EAST HARTFORD: A win is a win is a win.
That’s the thought after the University of Connecticut gutted out an unexpected close game by scoring the game’s final 10 points over the last 6:36 of the fourth quarter.
Bobby Puyol connected on a 37-yard field goal with 11-seconds to play, allowing the Huskies to escape with a 24-21 win over a hard fighting Maine Black Bears in front of 29,377 in an important home opener.
Face it, a loss to an FCS school was not what the doctor, or third year head coach Bob Diaco, ordered and having the unthinkable happen would not have helped a program that is looking to make an impression on their fan base and the Big 12.
Reminding fans that this kind of drama might be the norm in 2016, Diaco talked about why these type games may be the norm.
“We are going to have a whole bunch of fourth quarter fights down the stretch,” Diaco said. “The difference is in 2014 and 2015, we didn’t finish those games successfully in the past but we did tonight.”
Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who led the team in total yards with 276 combined rushing and passing yards, committed what might in the past been a disaster in the fourth quarter when he was blindsided by Black Bear safety Najee Goode who caused a fumble and returned the fumble 74-yards for the go ahead score with 9:56 to go.
The restless 29,377, who voiced their dismay with the offense in the first half, may have thought that they had seen this movie before and wanted a refund and maybe a coupon for a free box of popcorn but were treated instead to a team that did not fade or make another big mistake down the stretch.
A lot of that credit goes to the second year signal caller.
“He (Shirreffs) made some plays with his legs, he made some plays to keep drives alive,” Diaco said. “But he was also at the point of attack of a game changing turnover or it wouldn’t even have been this close, it wouldn’t have been interesting.”
The fumble and score occurred as the Huskies appeared to be driving for the go ahead score themselves after driving from their own 24 yard line to the Bears 14.
UConn had scored 14 straight points on a pair of touchdowns by a rejuvenated Ron Johnson who seemed primed for a big year coming in.
“Ron Johnson set himself up to have a strong year,” Diaco said. “Ron played well and he’ll continue to. I’m really pleased with both backs.”
The UConn offense woke up when Johnson and Arkeel Newsome got going, Newsome found open space on a 24-yard catch that led to the second score, a 21-yard gallop by Johnson.
Connecticut appeared to tie the game when Shirreffs went in from four yards out but after his helmet flew off at the one yard line on a vicious hit, the ball was ruled down.
“That was the first real hit of the football season,” Shirreffs said. “It woke me up.”
Johnson would bull in from a yard out for the Huskies first points of 2016.
Maine came in with a reputation for big plays and had three, one the fumble return, the others on passes of 20 and 40 yards.
The Black Bears had a chance to take the lead back with just over two minutes to play but a key block of a 47-yard field goal by Mikal Myers gave the offense the ball back.
The line had gotten close on a few other opportunities early in the game but a determined trio made sure they didn’t miss in crunch time.
“Me, Foley (Fatukasi) and Cole (Ormsby) said we needed to get it,” Myers said. “We had to make a play here and get the offense the ball back. We had been getting penetration the whole game and we finally got it.”
On the Huskies final drive, which started on their own 30 with 1:48 left and all three time outs, Shirreffs had a hand on every down.
He ran three times for 13 yards and was 4 of five through the air, the final one a critical 18-yard connection with Lemelle on the left sideline off a play that he kept alive by buying time.
With the ball on the 20-yard line, Puyol came on and after the Bears burned their final time out, drilled the 37 yard game winner.
What does this game and especially the final 6:36 say about this team?
“It says a lot about our work ethic,” Puyol said. “All summer we had talked about successful finish and when our back is against the wall, we have to finish. We did it every single day in practice and we knew we had to finish. It has changed our mindset.”
1-0 is still 1-0.
On to Navy on September 10.
NOTES: It by no means was the start that Diaco had envisioned after an optimistic spring and fall training camp that had expectations running high.
The Huskies were outgained in the first quarter by a 113-29 mark, granted 95 of those Maine yards came on their scoring drive but still, the message that had been spread far and wide was that this was going to be a different year but by the sound of the boo-birds just before the half, the crowd of was not pleased with what they saw.
By the half, the home team had done a better job on the offensive side of the ball with a 112-51 advantage when they had the ball but just the seven points after 30 minutes against a FCS team.