Under the radar, UConn falls one play short
EAST HARTFORD – In the swarm of the Giants, Patriots, Jets, Yankees and Mets all playing at the same time, along with record-setting late-September beach weather, UConn’s rescheduled football game with East Carolina Sunday, as expected, got lost in the shuffle.
The small, last second gathering of 14,036 at Pratt and Whitney Stadium witnessed a last second, devastating UConn loss, a 41-38 defeat as Michael Tarbutt's 33-yard game-tying field goal attempt sailed wide right with no time remaining. It was a bitter ending for the Huskies, who outscored East Carolina 31-14 after a disastrous start. They fell behind 27-7 with 5:51 left in the second quarter before showing signs of life.
UConn coach Randy Edsall’s defense was shredded by quarterback Thomas Sirk, who threw for 426 yards and three touchdowns, all to Davon Grayson. There was far too little resistance from the UConn secondary, especially against Grayson (11 catches), who was barely touched on several occasions, especially during his 75-yard touchdown reception in the third.
Each team finished with 596 yards in this shootout, but for the Huskies, it was their slow start that was their ultimate downfall. And Edsall was in no mood to celebrate his team’s valiant effort trying for a comeback.
“You are supposed to play the game for 60 minutes,” said Edsall, whose team is now 1-2 (0-1 AAC). “What we did was put our backs against the wall early, because of missed tackles and missed assignments. We had no choice but to fight back. We are always going to play for 60 minutes and if you don’t, you are not going to be playing.
“When we did our job, you saw what took place. That is what is frustrating.”
Bryant Shirreffs had the best game of his career for UConn, throwing for 406 yards and three touchdowns. Ansonia’s Arkeel Newsome, in his final season, caught eight passes for 170 yards, including an electric 79-yard reception for a touchdown in the fourth to pull the Huskies within three. And redshirt freshman Mason Donaldson notched the first two receiving touchdowns of his career, and finished with 108 yards on six catches.
On a somewhat positive note, it was a far better showing for the Huskies compared to last season’s debacle against ECU, in which they fell 41-3. And for this rebuilding team, it showed a hint of competiveness and, thankfully, for all viewers, some excitement. Last season’s 3-9 mess under Bob Diaco was a long, painful crawl in which the Huskies lost their last six games, including a three-game stretch that saw them average a measly one-point a game.
“I was glad to see us click in the second half, but I still don’t feel good about our performance,” Shirreffs said. “We have to focus on getting better.”
If UConn made it to overtime, it would have entered with all of the momentum. Shirreffs, with the aid of Newsome and an unnecessary roughness penalty on ECU, frantically drove down to the Pirates’ 16-yard line in the final minute. Everything was set up perfect for Tarbutt, a sophomore. The exection of the snap was on point, the field was in good shape, and the weather was perfect. He just missed.
“It felt great,” Tarbutt said. “My plant (foot) got a bit close. It forced me to keep my hips closed, and I just pushed the ball.”
Following the kick, Tarbutt stood in silence. Several members of the Huskies came over to offer support, including Edsall, who Tarbutt said, “He told me to keep my head up and that I’ll have another opportunity in the future. He was trying to be supportive and he was.”
After such a difficult 2016 season, it’s almost hard to remember this team was in a Bowl game two years ago. That is a very long shot for this season, especially since this game was one of the few that people had circled as a win. However, a turnaround and a Bowl game berth is something that can be done quickly. The 2015 Huskies are a great example of that. Memphis and Houston are also recent examples from the AAC.
The Huskies, while they did fall one play short, showed a competitive spirit not seen in almost a calendar year. Baby steps, sure, but it’s a start – to winning and to getting back in the shuffle.