EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – It had to be difficult for the Connecticut football players to watch a visiting team celebrate in their stadium. Cincinnati did that Saturday evening after a 34-17 victory over the Huskies at Rentschler Field.
The end result meant Cincinnati (9-3, 5-2 Big East) earned a share of the Big East title for the fourth time in five years. On the other sideline, UConn (5-7, 2-5) will not go bowling for the second consecutive season. That was a two-fisted combination punch the Huskies found unbearable and painful.
"It sucks," UConn tight end Ryan Griffin said. "They were dumping Gatorade on their coach's head and . . . it sucks."
Point to the non-conference losses against North Carolina State and Western Michigan. Dissect the loss at Rutgers or the overtime defeat to Temple. Bowl-less in Storrs seemed to be a foregone conclusion on Nov. 3 when the Huskies lost to South Florida and fell to 3-6 overall. But victories over Pittsburgh and Louisville gave the Huskies hope. UConn could have become bowl eligible with a victory over Cincinnati Saturday at Rentschler Field and there was excitement in the UConn camp all week.
But asking the Huskies to overcome a season full of transgressions was just too much. And the Bearcats had too many tricks up their sleeves.
"We wish we could've done a little more and really wish that it could've worked out for us," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "But it didn't. That doesn't diminish the fact that we're proud of the kids."
The Huskies trailed 14-0 and 21-10 but closed the gap to 21-17 on a 1-yard TD run by Lyle McCombs with 17 seconds remaining in the third quarter. It was the UConn's first touchdown scored in the second half of Big East play this season.
As glorious as the moment seemed, the drama ended there.
|Gatorade shower for Butch Jones (US PRESSWIRE)|
Starting quarterback Chandler Whitmer (16 of 31 for 264 yards, one TD and one interception), who suffered a concussion last week against Louisville, left the game with another head injury during the drive that led to the McCombs' touchdown. Johnny McEntee replaced Whitmer and completed the 15-play, 69-yard drive.
But with 11:01 left in the fourth quarter, McEntee was intercepted by Deven Drane at the UConn 35. Drane returned the ball to the UConn 4 and running back George Winn found the end zone on first down to give the Bearcats a 31-17 lead. Cincinnati got two field goals in the fourth as well, outscoring the Huskies 13-0 in the final quarter.
"Johnny thought it was man coverage and it was not," Pasqualoni said. "It was zone. It was just one of those split-second decisions a quarterback has to make. Tonight it was the wrong decision. That's not unique to John. That happens. That happens."
After falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, the Huskies did show signs of life.
UConn got on the scoreboard with a 40-yard field goal from freshman Bobby Puyol with 6:43 left in the second quarter. It was the first field goal on the first attempt of the career of Puyol, who was called into action when regular Chad Christen tweaked a muscle in his right leg early in the week.
Following a three-and-out for Cincinnati, Whitmer connected with Griffin on one of the most exciting plays of the UConn season. On first down from the UConn 26, Whitmer passed to Griffin over the middle. Griffin caught the ball at the 35, and showed a burst of unexpected speed as he raced toward the end zone. Drane tried to trip him up but Griffin staggered the final eight yards or so and lunged into the end zone.
"It was a great play by Chandler, he just put it on me and luckily I was running for my life," Griffin said. "I felt something coming. I knew I wasn't just going to waltz in there. I had all that momentum [on the lunge]."
The 74-yard play seemed to give the Huskies a lift, but Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay and tight end Travis Kelce were a lethal tandem for the Bearcats. They combined for three touchdowns, two from Kay to Kelce and a third on a trick play. Kay threw a backwards screen play to Kelce, who then threw back across the field to Kay who raced down the right sideline for a razzle-dazzle, 39-yard TD that made it 14-0.
Kelce, who redshirted his first year, played as a wildcat-formation quarterback and tight end under now Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly in his second year. He then sat out his third season, suspended for violation of team rules.
"A receiver paints a picture for a quarterback," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "As a quarterback you have to have great anticipation and read their body language. [Kay] reads Travis's body language really well. He put the ball in places where only Travis could make a play on it. Travis Kelce is one of the best athletes we have on this football team."
Kay completed 19 of 29 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns. With Trevardo Williams, UConn's all-time sacks leader, limited because of an ankle injury, the Huskies managed just one sack. Whitmer was brought down four times and said he had an instant headache after taking the third-quarter shot from Greg Blair on a trick play.
"We were a patchwork group," Pasqualoni said, referring to all the injuries.
Whitmer hit his head on the turf and said he couldn't remember anything other than McCombs telling him to sit down. He wobbled back to the UConn sideline after the Cincinnati coaches helped him stand and somewhat steady himself.
"He's a competitor and it showed," Jones said. "We kept telling him to take a knee and he didn't want to take a knee and I think that shows you about his character – his competitive character. He's a gutsy young man."
That sums up UConn's situation in recent weeks. The Huskies went down fighting because they cared so much. And for that reason, the final result was hard to swallow.
"Very surreal emotions," senior linebacker Sio Moore said when asked to describe his emotions. "I love all my guys, I love my teammates, I love my defense. We went through a lot and we fought every time we played. A lot of teams would bow down. But we didn't. And that's one thing I can say about my guys.
"You never think it's over until it's really over."