Shirreffs to the rescue as Huskies comeback against Holy Cross, 27-20
EAST HARTFORD: Coming into the season, UConn red shirt senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs had no idea if or when he would see any playing time this season.
Incoming transfer David Pindell had been named the starter by head coach Randy Edsall weeks ago, and it was not out of the realm of possibility that Shirreffs could be grounded to the bench as a seldom used back up.
Then came the first half of the Huskies 2017 opener that was clearly going sideways as they trailed FCS foe Holy Cross by a 20-7 score at the half and were not off to a great start in the third quarter under Pindell, who was struggling.
Shirreffs came to his teams rescue from a position he’s not used to being in, a back-up and led them to 20 straight second half points as the Huskies rallied for a 27-20 win, avoiding just the kind of start they dreaded as they look to re-energize the program and their fans base.
The offense awakened under Shirreffs, striking quickly on three occasions to score on drives that played out in a big hurry.
Down 20-7 with 1:33 left in the third quarter, the Huskies started at their own 47 thanks to a punt return (yes, you read that right) by freshman Jordan Swann that gave them the ball in good field position.
A five play, 53-yard drive in just 1:18 was topped off by a 3-yard touchdown run by Nate Hopkins, one of three the red shirt freshman would score in the season opener.
After a three and out by the defense, one that shut the Crusaders out in the second half, Shirreffs went back to work by leading an eight play, 59-yard drive that took just 2:27 and ended with an 11-yard touchdown throw to Hergy Mayala that gave the home team the lead at 21-20.
The defense did their job again by causing the years first turnover when Tre Bell forced a fumble by Blaise Bell which was recovered by Santana Sterling in Holy Cross territory.
Six plays and 47 yards later (in just two minutes) Hopkins went in from a yard out and the fast -paced offense was being run by the back-up and it was running well.
In his return to the sidelines at The Rent, head coach Randy Edsall was pleased with how his team responded to the heavy dose of adversity they experienced in the first half.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Esdall said. “In terms of fighting back and getting the win. I wasn’t sure about our team because I have never seen them in a situation where adversity struck. We had plenty of adversity tonight and just seeing how they handled that and work their way through it by coming back to get the win, I am really proud of them.”
It was a fiery locker room talk by a player who missed most of the game after being ejected in the first quarter for a helmet to helmet hit that sparked the team going into the second half.
Red shirt senior Foley Fatukasi was thrown out at the nine-minute mark of the opening quarter when he hit Holy Cross quarterback Peter Pujals in the head but stayed in the game mentally and stood up at the half to inspire his teammates.
“At halftime, Foley stood up,” Edsall said. “Even though he wasn’t even in the game and started talking to the guys. I didn’t have to say anything. So that kind of tells me that they are listening, they want to take ownership of the team and when it’s player driven, you have a chance.”
For his part, Fatukasi just thought something needed to be said.
“My message was,” Fatukasi said, “Just believe. We put in a lot of hard work. The coaches have been really intense. I just wanted all of us to believe that we could do it and sure enough we did.”
Knowing when to speak up is not new to the upperclassmen who had done this before.
“It just came from the heart,” Fatukasi said. “As a senior. I’m one of the team leaders one of the many leaders and I felt like I couldn’t just sit there and keep quiet so it just kind of came from the heart to talk to the team.”
The effort of Shirreffs, a player who suffered through the 3-9 campaign a year ago and ended up bruised and battered because of it is an example of a player sticking with the team for the good of the team.
“You have to give credit to Bryant,” Edsall said. “In terms of him coming in and doing the job that he did. It shows me a lot in terms of how he handled the situation that he put himself into. He and I had a conversation, maybe a day or two ago. I was in the office when he came in and told me that he was all in with everything we are doing and I’ve appreciated what you have told me. He said the team is important to me and all I want to do is win.”
Being ready on every down is certainly not an easy thing to do but Shirreffs kept himself prepared despite the different role he found himself in.
“It’s tough,” Shirreffs said. “I don’t know that I have ever been in a situation like that before but in my mind, I was starting. I just prepared like I was going to play the whole game so when it was my turn, I was prepared.”
So, the Huskies open the season with a win and with it, find a couple of offensive standouts in the process.
Hopkins had a break out game with 130 yards on 20 carries and the three touchdowns while Mayala broke the century mark with 106 yards and a touchdown.
He and Shirreffs seemed on the same page when the offense was clicking with a pair of terrific back shoulder throws that found their mark.
The Crusaders made a point of focusing on senior Arkeel Newsome who was held to one yard on eight carries but did break free on a screen pass from Shirreffs that went for 34-yards on the Huskies final scoring drive.