It was a tale of two Huskies at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium Saturday. The opening half saw them flounder for 27 minutes before turning the tide. They fell behind quickly, and remarkably made it back but a few poorly-timed mistakes cost them the game at the end.
Two 40+ yard passing plays helped Navy mount two scoring drives which were relatively quick by their standards. The touchdown drives of 4:57 in the first quarter and 4:51 early in the second quarter, separated by some textbook UConn offensive incompetence, helped the Midshipmen jump out to a 14-0 lead.
After a UConn three-and-out, it looked like things might start getting ugly. They did, but not how one might expect.
Navy started at the UConn 40 thanks to a 20-yard punt return and was deep in UConn territory knocking on the door of another touchdown. But on 4th and goal from the one-yard line, Junior Joseph stuffed Navy quarterback Will Worth at the 1⁄2 yard line.
Unfortunately, UConn found a way to surprise even its most pessimistic fans—who were probably expecting a safety—on the ensuing possession.
Bryant Shirreffs ran a sneak to try to give the Huskies some space on the very first play. Though it looked like his forward progress may have stopped, the ball was ripped from his hands and returned for a touchdown.
21-0 Navy. Cue the chorus of virtual boos from UConn Twitter, and rightfully so. It looked like the rout was on.
Things appeared to be getting much worse as Tyraiq Beals fumbled on the ensuing kick return. Though Navy took over at UConn’s 20, and had been comfortably moving the ball all day, the Midshipmen were forced to attempt a field goal which was blocked by Foley Fatukasi.
Despite hardly showing signs of life early on, UConn’s offense lit up to end the first half as Shirreffs marched the Huskies downfield, going 7-for-7 for 76 yards, 34 coming on a touchdown pass on a nice catch-and-run by Noel Thomas. It wasn’t much, but the Huskies salvaged some hope going into halftime. Thomas would finish the game with 11 receptions for 116 yards to go along with the score.
UConn took those positive vibes and found a way to complete the comeback in the third quarter. It looked like a completely different team ran out of the tunnel for the second half.
The third quarter could not have started more perfectly, as a Navy three-and-out was followed by a Husky touchdown thanks to some trickeration.
UConn’s drive had stalled with 4th-and-4 at the Navy 28. The field goal team went out, but instead of lining up for a kick, holder/tight end/converted quarterback Tyler Davis lined up shotgun behind the line with kicker Bobby Puyol lined up outside. They snapped the ball before the defense could figure out what was going on and Davis hit Alec Bloom down the seam for a 25-yard gain.
Ron Johnson would punch it in for a touchdown to make it 21-14 after a 10-play, 60-yard drive.
Undeterred, Navy found its offensive groove again, driving 68 yards to the UConn seven before committing its first turnover of the game. Fullback Chris High tried to bounce a run outside but Mikal Myers swiped the ball out of his hands. Cornerback Jamar Summers returned it 86 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
Somehow, some way, this became a ballgame. You have to give credit to the Huskies for battling the way they did, even if the ending was so sour.
UConn pulled ahead with a 38-yard field goal by Bobby Puyol to make it 24-21. Navy answered right back with a touchdown drive to re-take the lead, 28-24, aided by a short field thanks to a misplayed punt by Brian Lemelle on the previous possession.
Shirreffs and the Huskies took over from their own 20 with 3:08 left in the game needing a touchdown. They drove downfield, making it all the way to the one, but watched as time expired after a Ron Johnson attempt from the 1-yard line fell short.
The ending was controversial, for a few reasons.
The scenario: On first and goal from the ten, Shirreffs completed a pass to Hergy Mayla to get UConn to the one. The Huskies burned their final time-out because, according to Diaco, there was some confusion about the spot of the ball and whether or not he was down inbounds and the clock was still running. That time-out would have been helpful.
Why call a run up the gut if you’re out of time-outs? Why not spike it quickly instead of calling your final time-out? Or even take the delay of game penalty to keep the clock alive?
It’s easy to be an expert in hindsight. If Johnson strolls into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown none of that matters. The Seattle Seahawks showed us what can happen if you pass in this situation in Super Bowl 49, so it’s hard to react too strongly to what was a split-second decision. Still, the staff needed to show more awareness and better position the team to succeed.
There are many positives. Both sides of the ball bounced back with great second halves, a particularly pleasant development for an offense which has previously shown very little. Shirreffs went 23-for-26 passing with 239 yards and showed great composure under pressure. Though it stings to lose, especially this way, it’s incredible that it even came down to this. Hopefully, the players and staff can learn a lot from the experience in what is still a very young season.
Everyone believed this team was terrible after the first half. At least we know that isn’t true. Do you believe UConn can win its next two games after this effort? You should.