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Recap: UConn football’s upset bid spoiled by Houston

Missed opportunities and conservative playcalling stood in the way of the Huskies and their first FBS win in the past two years.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Jack Zergiotis completed 27 of 44 passes for 270 yards and a pair of touchdowns on Saturday against Houston, a solid outing for the freshman quarterback. But a handful of overthrown deep balls to wide-open receivers, combined with timid offensive playcalling, cut the Huskies’ upset bid short in a 24-17 loss.

“Ultimately, I can’t miss those throws downfield,” Zergiotis said. “I can’t miss them. And I think that made the difference today, it would have been a different game.”

Three receivers — Cam Ross, Ardell Brown and Art Thompkins — had over 50 yards receiving. Kevin Mensah added 119 all-purpose yards from the backfield. Four times, once in the first, twice in the third and once in the fourth quarter, they got separation from Houston defensive backs. Completing just one of those would have made a big difference in the trajectory of the game.

Houston brought out the trick plays early — a fake speed option pass on their second drive of the game set them up nicely, deep in UConn territory — but it turns out, that was the only way that they could move the ball successfully early on. The Houston drive stalled out and the Cougars were forced into a field goal.

UConn’s front seven was disruptive all afternoon, and it was a major key to keeping the game competitive. Led by Kevon Jones, Omar Fortt and Jackson Mitchell, who combined for 26 tackles, 2.5 for loss and three sacks on the night, they held Houston to 104 yards rushing, less than half of their season average.

Later in the quarter, Houston took advantage of a subpar punt (by Luke Magliozzi’s standards), clawing their way 35 yards down the sideline to UConn’s 42, where a booming field goal from Dalton Witherspoon put Houston on the board first, 3-0.

Art Thompkins’ nice run kicked off UConn’s first long drive of the day. Combined with a buck sweep to Cam Ross that went for 11 yards to the Houston 33, UConn was threatening for the first time in the game. That was quickly wiped away by a holding penalty, and Edsall decided to punt from Houston’s 40-yard line for the second game in a row, his first of two such decisions.

UConn’s defense continued to bear down, though, and forced another three-and-out. Their dogged effort set up the offense nicely for their first scoring drive of the day. UConn’s offense turned over, then sputtered to life: After connecting one of his first five passes, Zergiotis completed his next four in a row, culminating in a 17-yard touchdown pass on a rope to Matt Drayton. UConn had its first lead since September 21st, but it wouldn’t last long.

The Huskies’ next drive started out about the same: A few solid runs from Mensah and Thompkins, four out of five passes completed from Zergiotis, and once again they entered Cougar territory. But a misplaced pass from Zergiotis that fell way behind his target led to a Houston interception, returned deep into UConn territory. Three plays later, Cougars’ running back Kyle Porter was in the end zone.

UConn opened up the second half with more solid offense, as Zergiotis completed five of six passes on a 55-yard drive to set up a field goal that tied the game, 10-10. The one incompletion came on an overthrown deep ball, one of four on the game.

The game opened up in the second half, as UConn and Houston traded haymakers. Holgorsen finally connected on one of the deep balls that he had been missing all game, a 58-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Stevenson that made it 17-10.

UConn responded in kind, as Kevin Mensah barreled 58 yards down the sideline, getting pushed out inside the ten. Then, UConn’s offense came to a screeching halt with four yards needed to get in the endzone and tie the game. Kevin Mensah came off the field and UConn ran Art Thompkins — a shiftier, pass-catching back — three times in an unsuccessful attempt to tie the game.

Ardell Brown had one of the more ridiculous catches you will ever see but all that effort ended in missed field goal attempt, as Randy Edsall’s intrepid offensive strategy attempted to turn a seven point deficit into a four-point deficit. Houston took over and scored a touchdown to go up 14.

UConn didn’t give up though, and quickly stormed down the field again for another touchdown. But they were running out of time and after an unsuccessful onside kick, Houston secured its victory.

UConn’s most winnable FBS game of the year is up next, at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at UMass.