For 43 minutes Thursday night, it looked like the UConn Football would get off to a disastrous start. Holy Cross was dominating the Huskies and held a 20-7 lead. The return of Randy Edsall was not going well.
Then, things changed with the insertion of senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs into the lineup. The heretofore lethargic offense went 53 yard in 78 seconds to get within six points. The defense produced a three and out and Shirreffs marched the Huskies 59 yards in 8 plays and threw a perfectly executed touchdown pass to Hergy Mayala to give Connecticut a lead it wouldn’t lose in an eventual 27-20 season opening win.
It says a lot about Shirreffs that he was ready to play and performed as well as he did. After starting for two years, Bryant lost the starting quarterback job to David Pindell. But he stayed ready and when called upon was terrific, going 9 for 13 for 124 yards. Shirreffs is a competitor and not starting had to hurt. But he stayed with it and led the Huskies comeback. Is he now the starter? Good question? Pindell wasn’t awful Thursday but he wasn’t great. Edsall and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have an interesting decision to make.
There were two other offensive heroes. The aforementioned Mayala had a career game with 9 catches for 106 yards. He also showed an ability to get yards after the catch. We had talked on the Coaches Show about who would replace Noel Thomas as the go to receiver. I think we got our answer last night.
The star of the night was Nate Hopkins. The freshman running back gained 130 yards and scored three times. He ran with power and speed and often times made yards when there weren’t yards to be made. He stepped up when Arkeel Newsome struggled, although Newsome did have a big catch and run for 34 yards to help set up the Hopkins TD that made it 27-20.
Defensively, after getting shredded by Cross QB Peter Pujals in the first half, the Huskies shut the Crusaders down after intermission, allowing no points, and just as importantly NO third down conversions in six attempts. UConn began to get pressure on Pujals and the secondary did a better job in coverage. Holy Cross could never muster a serious running game although they tried. In fact, I think one of the keys to the game was Head Coach Tom Gilmore going conservative midway thru the third quarter with a 20-7 lead. Instead of continuing to attack the UConn defense, Holy Cross began to run the ball more and that helped start the UConn comeback. Bad news for the D was the departure of middle linebacker Junior Joseph in the third quarter with an apparent shoulder injury. UConn can’t affort to lose Joseph for very long.
To a man, the Huskies praised the halftime speech by senior nose tackle Foley Fatukasi. The senior was ejected for targeting on Holy Cross fourth offensive play of the game . But he didn’t sulk and when the Huskies need a kick in the derriere at halftime, Foley was there to give it to them. Like Shirreffs, it was a sign of maturity.
Let’s be honest, there were a lot of correctable mistakes in this one, but that’s what openers are for. UConn might not have come back and won this game a year ago, but that’s in the past and now this years team understands you need to execute to win . The competition becomes much tougher next Saturday when pre season AAC favorite USF comes to East Hartford.
And finally, a note about the passing of Dr Jeff Anderson. Doc A as he was lovingly known was the director of Sports Medicine for 20 years before taking over as Director of Medical Services for Students in July of 2014. Jeff was one of the friendliest, nicest people in the world. We spent many hours on Bus 4 during the football season laughing, talking sports and everything else. Anytime spend with Doc was time well spent. He was truly special and it’s still hard to believe he has been taken from us far too early . RIP Doc, and thanks for making the lives of everyone who met you better.
Enjoy your holiday weekend UConn Nation! See you next week as we ramp up for USF