(WTNH)–Until about halfway through the third quarter of Randy Edsall’s return to the UConn sidelines on Thursday night, it looked like the only thing that was going to be #REStorred was the tradition of losing that has prevaded in East Hartford ever since he bolted for College Park.
Holy Cross, led by slingin’ senior quarterback Peter Pujals and speedy senior wideout Blaise Bell, was moving up and down the field like it was the 12th Century. The Crusaders exploited wide open spaces in the secondary, capitalized on a couple of awful turnovers (fumbles by Jordan Swann and David Pindell in UConn terrirory), and raced out to a 20-7 lead that held up all the way until the dying seconds of the third quarter.
If not for Bryant Shirreffs, the guy who led UConn to its last bowl game, and the guy who was unceremoniously benched and watched as his replacement last year went on to put up 13 points in 180 minutes of football, this would’ve been a loss.
One minute and thirty-three seconds after he stepped onto the field, the Huskies were in the end zone. A second-down pass to Keyion Dixon went for 15 yards, another seven-yarder to Hergy Mayala had the Crusaders worried about the pass for the first time all night, and then stud freshman running back Nate Hopkins exploited that fear with a 28-yard run down to the Holy Cross 3-yard line. He cashed in on the next play.
After a much-needed three-and-out that took up just 48 seconds of game time, the Huskies had the ball back. And two minutes and 27 seconds later, they were in the end zone again. Just like that, a one-sided loss to an FCS school at home becomes a come-from-behind win, the stories about a season lost in August never leave their respective Word drafts, and Edsall’s debut has a happy ending instead of a disastrous one.
Sure, the defense could have been much better. It gave up 447 total yards to a middle-of-the-pack Patriot League team. But, it stood tall when it mattered most, pitching a second half shutout and giving the offense just enough time to get itself jump-started.
There were plenty of bright spots, including freshman Nate Hopkins’ breakout game–130 yards on 20 carres, a 6.5 yards-per-carry average, and three touchdowns. Junior wideout Hergy Mayala also caught nine balls for 106 yards and the score that put the Huskies ahead for good. Both players looked like they could end up being reliable producers for the Huskies going forward, provided that the guy under center plays well enough to get them the ball and keep them on the field.
Edsall said he’d watch the game tape before making a decision on his starter next week.
“We’re not going to hide anything from you though,” he said. “You’ll know as soon as we announce it.”
It should be Shirreffs, who after three years of ups and downs, at least has the experience–and the pedigree to get it done late in games. Shirreffs engineered a late-game drive last season to avoid another would-be embarassing loss to an FCS school (Maine). He marched the team down the field for what should have been a game-winning drive at Navy, and led the Huskies to wins over Cincinnati and Virginia.
Pindell brings a theoretical big-play threat, and he put up decent numbers when he was in there–19-for-28 for 154 yards–but he looked overmatched at times against a defense he should have been dominating. Even the Crusaders were a big step up in competition from what Pindell faced last season at Lackawanna Junior College, and it may have taken that first game to get adjusted.
Still, the team responded to Shirreff’s fire and sense of urgency when it badly needed it in the second half. He’s never been perfect—but he was 9-of-13 for 124 yards and a score, and UConn needed every one of those completions to pull out the ‘W.’
We’re guessing he’ll be the guy when the Huskies host South Florida on September 9.