This was a weird game, with a predictable final result, but the UConn Huskies posted a competitive effort in a 31-23 loss to Illinois at Rentschler Field. Randy Edsall trotted out a new starting quarterback in true freshman Jack Zergiotis, who did pretty well for his first career start. The Huskies fall to 1-1 as they head into a bye week.
UConn got the ball first, going three-and-out, but got on the board first with a Tyler Coyle interception returned for a touchdown on the next possession. The Huskies forced a punt and mounted an impressive long drive, but had to settle for a field goal after moving 74 yards downfield. They made a third stop, as Kevon Jones stuffed a 4th-down attempt, but the Huskies settled for a field goal again despite starting with a short field.
Still, they had a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter, which is pretty darn good for a three-score home underdog starting a true freshman at QB. The Husky defense is clearly capable of making stops, which is obviously a major upgrade from last year and downright heartwarming to see against FBS competition.
Unfortunately, the rest of that second quarter was a nightmare for the Huskies. They gave up 24 unanswered points and gained just 38 yards offensively, with the playcalling looking notably more conservative, presumably because the Huskies were in the lead.
Zergiotis threw an interception on a poorly-thrown ball late in the half, but given that he was a true freshman in his first-ever start, the fact that the offense was moving the ball at all is promising. The Montreal native finished with 275 passing yards while completing 21 of 31 attempts, though he did have two interceptions in addition to a fumble lost. He has a strong arm and a knack for making plays, but will need to quickly learn the nuances of managing the game as the starter. After the game, Randy Edsall said Zergiotis is the starter moving forward.
The Huskies competed in the second half, trading touchdowns with the visitors in the third quarter and getting within a score after a field goal in the fourth quarter. They had a chance to tie it after forcing a punt at 7:42 in the fourth down eight, but couldn’t capitalize. Zergiotis and the Huskies had one more chance late in the game, but an interception ended the drive and Illinois kneeled to victory after making a first down.
The battle in the trenches really made the difference for Illinois, as UConn failed to put very much pressure on Illini QB Brandon Peters and, on the other side of the ball, UConn’s line struggled to hold up. Kevin Mensah had 14 carries for 27 yards, though he did have an amazing second-effort play to get that third-quarter touchdown. Illinois also got five sacks and held Art Thompkins to just 14 yards on eight carries.
Despite the loss, this is a promising performance for Edsall and the Huskies. Few expected UConn to remain competitive in this one after barely beating Wagner and seeing Illinois thrash Akron last week.
The Huskies will have two weeks to prepare for a road trip to Indiana before beginning the meat of the AAC slate. The final non-conference game will be against UMass, who just lost to FCS Southern Illinois, badly, on October 26. If I may be so bold, it looks like UConn can win another game or two this year, which would be a great sign of great progress for the program.
Having a new starter at quarterback also changes the excitement level around this team. Mike Beaudry didn’t seem to have any glaring issues, but his playmaking ability was limited. Husky fans should be intrigued by the upside that Zergioitis offers at the most important position on the field.