First day of school: UConn football wins opener over UMass

UConn's Lyle McCombs tries to break away from the UMass defense during the first quarter of Thursday night's season-opening football game at Rentschler Field. McCombs rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown as the Huskies won 37-0.
UConn's Lyle McCombs tries to break away from the UMass defense during the first quarter of Thursday night's season-opening football game at Rentschler Field. McCombs rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown as the Huskies won 37-0. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

East Hartford - So what, exactly, did we learn about UConn during its 37-0 dismantling of UMass on Thursday night at Rentschler Field?

The defense, as expected, dominated an inferior opponent, limiting the Minutemen to just 59 total yards and only three first downs. UMass, in fact, never crossed midfield.

The special teams were, well, pretty special, turning a blocked punt into six points, getting nine more from new place-kicker Chad Christen, and helping the elusive Nick Williams average 22 yards per punt return.

The offense, however, was still kind of hard to dissect. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer was fairly efficient in his debut (15-for-25, 219 yards), Scott McCummings got plenty of action running the Huskies' wildcat formation and Lyle McCombs had a productive night, rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown.

But there was enough inconsistent play - not to mention three turnovers (two by Whitmer) - to keep the Husky offense from being completely satisfied as it turns the page to a much more talented opponent, North Carolina State, which visits the Rent on Sept. 8. The other mistake was a poor exchange between McCummings and McCombs out of the wildcat at the UMass 5 that cost UConn another TD in the third quarter.

Still, an opening night crowd of 35,270 witnessed enough positive signs to believe the 2012 Huskies are good enough to wipe out the bad taste of a losing season in 2011 and become legitimate bowl contenders this fall.

"We got the win, played a lot of people, but now we've got some things to work on," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "I'm a little bit disappointed that we had the ball to start second half and got down there and turned over, and three turnovers is not acceptable.

"But overall I'm pleased. It's a good start."

UConn flexed its power from the get-go, forcing a quick 3-and-out before taking its opening drive 75 yards for a touchdown, McCombs' 1-yard run with 5:59 left in the first quarter.

UMass, making its FBS debut, simply couldn't compete with the Huskies, in part because of a fast, powerful and experienced UConn defense that didn't allow the Minutemen a first down until there was only 33 seconds left in the first half.

By then, the Huskies had opened a 20-0 lead, getting 36 and 47-yard field goals by Christen in the second quarter and cornerback Dwayne Gratz's 37-yard interception return for a touchdown with just 1:49 before the end of the half.

Berlin's Max DeLorenzo scored his first career touchdown in the third quarter, falling on Taylor Mack's blocked punt in the end zone with 4:12 left in the third quarter before McCummings added a 1-yard TD run with 8:24 left in the fourth quarter and Christen kicked his third field goal of the night, a 19-yarder with 1:36 to play.

"We don't take those field goals for granted," Pasqualoni said. "Those were Chad's first field goals and he did an excellent job."

Middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood had 3.5 tackles for losses, including a sack, as the Huskies completely shut down the UMass running game, limiting the Minutemen to just three yards on 24 attempts.

"We've got some guys who are pretty athletic and can really run," Pasqualoni said. "We do have some athletes on defense."

The Huskies may have lost one of those athletes, reserve defensive end Ted Jennings, who suffered a left knee injury in the third quarter and didn't return.

c.banning@theday.com

Dwayne Gratz of UConn intercepts a pass intended for Marken Michel of UMass, left, in the second quarter of Thursday night's game at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. Gratz returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.
Dwayne Gratz of UConn intercepts a pass intended for Marken Michel of UMass, left, in the second quarter of Thursday night's game at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. Gratz returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
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