UConn’s fourth game didn’t come down to the final play like its previous three did, but it was a close one which ended with a loss to Syracuse at home, 31-24.
The Orange quickly jumped out to a 14-0 lead after two long touchdown receptions by star receiver Amba Etta-Tawo. The first drive took 51 seconds to move 75 yards while the second clocked in at a leisurely 1:22. Etta-Tawo finished with a school record 270 yards on 12 receptions. Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey threw for 403 yards and two touchdowns, adding a rushing touchdown as well.
Luckily, the second quarter told a different tale. The defense settled down and the Husky offense started finding its way as UConn tied the game. Bryant Shirreffs started spreading the ball around and getting into a rhythm in the passing game. Ron Johnson scored the first touchdown on a 3-yard run and then Arkeel Newsome scampered into the end zone from six yards out to tie the game with 34 seconds left in the first half.
Noel Thomas was once again the Huskies leading receiver with a career-high 12 receptions for 111 yards, although six other pass-catchers had at least two receptions on the day. Bryant Shirreffs finished with 264 yards, one touchdown, and one interception while completing 27 of 45 passes (60%).
Syracuse would take a lead into the break after putting together a quick field goal drive, but ultimately the Huskies did well to come back after yet another weak start. At this point, I was feeling like Diaco had the Huskies in position to win.
UConn tied it up with a Bobby Puyol field goal in the third quarter but the Orange struck back with an interception returned for a touchdown. Bryant Shirreffs’ 3rd down pass attempt was tipped into the hands of freshman cornerback Cornell Hudson, who ran it in 22 yards for the go-ahead score in the final minute of the third quarter. The Huskies promptly punted after going three-and-out on the ensuing possession.
The Huskies stayed in contention thanks to a partially blocked field goal attempt by Foley Fatukasi. The offense then drove 56 yards down the field before converting a 4th & 3 on a fake field goal pass for 17 yards by Tyler Davis to tight end Tommy Myers, setting up 1st & goal on the 8-yard line.
UConn chose to go for it on fourth down six times, converting four. That sixth attempt would come three plays later and ultimately decide the game.
With 1st & goal from the 8, the Huskies ran what looked like three read option plays which all went to Ron Johnson up the middle. On 4th & goal from the 2, Shirreffs faked a hand-off and kept slightly off-tackle but was stuffed. Syracuse scored an insurance touchdown on a 98-yard drive and UConn answered back with one to make the final score look closer.
Though Bobby Puyol attempted a solid onside kick, Obi Melifonwu had a chance but couldn’t make a play on it and Syracuse recovered.
Though it was a close game, the way it was lost, with some unimaginative offensive playcalling highlighting a key late drive, is very disappointing considering the overwhelming evidence for when the offense is at its best. The personnel is not equipped to execute the run-heavy approach which the coaches would prefer to run, and though they adapt when points are needed, they stick to their failing guns in critical moments. It’s a problem.
UConn will be in action next on a short week as the Huskies travel to No. 6 Houston for a Thursday night rendezvous on ESPN.