Lets forget for a moment about the team's record, about it's unfortunate conference situation and all of our feelings about Paul Pasqualoni. Last night, UConn nearly beat No. 15 Michigan at home in front of the biggest crowd in school history and millions of viewers across the country watching the game on ABC.
For three quarters, UConn outplayed a far more talented Michigan team and looked like a completely different group than the one that laid an egg against Towson and Maryland. The Huskies got big stops on defense, made big plays in the red zone and played with a real sense of fire and urgency.
The team electrified a UConn crowd that's been dying for something to cheer about, and when Ty-Meer Brown returned Fitzgerald Toussaint's fumble for a touchdown to give the Huskies a 21-7 lead early in the second half, Rentschler Field lit up in a way I've never seen before. It was electric, everyone in the stadium was on their feet, and you could probably hear the ensuing U-C-O-N-N chant from miles away.
Better yet, it was like that for the whole game from start to finish. With the national spotlight fixed on East Hartford, UConn Country stepped up and produced without question the most exciting atmosphere I've ever seen at Rentschler Field.
In the end, it wasn't meant to be, and Michigan was able to cement their reputation as college football's greatest escape artists with a 24-21 win on a late field goal. But as disappointing as the ending was, UConn fans can take solace in knowing that while the team lost the game, the school won back some badly needed respect, which in the political landscape of college football can be just as important as individual wins and losses.
Also, as bad as they've been over the past two and a half years, Pasqualoni and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for preparing an effective gameplan and getting the team ready to play. Coming into the game, Michigan's three key weaknesses that UConn could potentially exploit were a weak pass rush, an inexperienced interior offensive line and quarterback Devin Gardner's tendency to make poor decisions, and throughout the course of the game, UConn was able to masterfully exploit each one of these areas.
The defense consistently put pressure on Gardner, sacking him three times and effectively forcing him to do all of his work with his legs. Gardner only finished with 11 completions for 97 yards passing, and the Husky secondary did a good job preventing Michigan's receivers from getting open down the field for a big play, picking off two passes in the process.
The much maligned offensive line deserves a lot of credit for their performance as well, they kept Michigan's pass rushers out of the pocket for most of the game and gave Chandler Whitmer the time he needed to make some incredible throws. It's been said before and I'll say it again, when Whitmer has time to throw, he can be a very effective quarterback.
Overall, UConn did everything it needed to win through the first three quarters. It forced four turnovers, it capitalized on Michigan's mistakes, it made big plays and played suffocating defense. UConn got contributions from just about everyone, but in the end, UConn was doomed by a backbreaking turnover of its own.
Whitmer's interception early in the fourth quarter, followed by the game-tying touchdown that came on the next play, was a tough pill to swallow. Even still, the Huskies were able to keep Michigan out of the endzone on their next possession and hold the Wolverines to a field goal, giving the offense a chance to win the game on their last drive or at least force overtime with a field goal of their own.
Then on that last possession, Whitmer made some big completions and drove the team down the field, but just before getting the first down that would have put them in field goal range, UConn committed an ill-timed false start and then gave up a big sack to make it 4th and 29 with the game on the line.
As Andrew said last night, the last play turned out to be a microcosm of the whole game. Whitmer completed a perfect pass to Deshon Foxx, but he fell just two yards short of the first down, sealing the win for the Wolverines.
Simply put, the team did everything it needed to win, and yet it made just enough mistakes to fall just short.
Regardless, UConn has now demonstrated that it's capable of playing with the big boys, so now it's imperative that the team takes the next step and shows that it can beat the lesser opponents on its schedule too. Next week the Huskies hit the road and play Buffalo, a team that was blown out by obviously superior teams in Ohio State and Baylor and then pulled out a 26-23 win over FCS Stony Brook in five overtimes (seriously). Then after that, UConn opens conference play against USF, who lets just say hasn't had a very good start to the season either.
I don't know what the rest of the season will entail, or if things will get better before they get worse again. The mid-season gauntlet of Cincinnati, UCF and Louisville is going to be a real tough stretch for this team, and realistically we might be looking at a best case scenario of 5-7 at this point (which would be fitting).
But I do know that last night UConn fans could go to sleep proud of their team, and it's been a very long time since any of us have been able to say that.