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    Monday, November 28, 2022

    UConn football’s uphill battle continues Saturday against Fresno State

    UConn's Zion Turner throws the ball against North Carolina State during the second half of the game on Sept. 24 in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
    UConn's Devontae Houston (25) runs the ball against North Carolina State during the second half of the game on Sept. 24 in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

    As part of his pregame routine, Jim Mora runs up the steps in the stadium stands.

    It’s something that he’s been doing since he first started coaching.

    “I’ve always enjoyed running uphill,” said the 60-year-old Mora. “I guess it’s the challenge of it. And it makes me feel good, maybe a tiny bit more relaxed.”

    In his first season as Husky head coach, Mora is facing a more daunting uphill challenge in rebuilding the football program.

    The Huskies have been beaten up by injuries and beaten down by ranked opponents in recent weeks.

    After consecutive lopsided road losses at Michigan and North Carolina State, UConn returns home Saturday, hosting Fresno State (1-2) at 3:30 p.m. at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The Huskies (1-4) will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak.

    The two teams met in the season opener last year, with host Fresno State rolling to a 45-0 victory.

    A week after that, UConn was stunned by Holy Cross, leading to coach Randy Edsall abruptly stepping down. A tumultuous season ended with the Huskies recording just one victory.

    Mora took over a program that had hit rock bottom and he’s been working hard to build a strong foundation.

    Given the difficult schedule and injuries to key players, it’s difficult to notice improvements on game days.

    But Mora sees progress in his team, including in last week’s 41-10 loss to No. 12 North Carolina State.

    The Huskies played with more speed and more certainty, according to Mora who continues to love his team’s effort and attitude.

    “It probably sounds insane to most people who will hear this when you give up 41 points, but in general we played closer to our potential and closer to what we want to be than we have all year, including the Central Connecticut State game where we didn’t allow a touchdown,” Mora said. “We played closer to what we’re capable of and we played closer to what we want to look like than we have. … That’s what the film showed, that’s not what the score showed.”

    As far as taking steps forward, UConn’s offense is lagging behind the defense mostly due to the fact that it relies on younger players and has lost major playmakers, including leading rusher Nate Carter (shoulder), to injuries.

    The Huskies have scored only 24 points in the last three games with true freshman quarterback Zion Turner in charge.

    “It’s harder on offense for us right now…,” Mora said. “The last three games, we played defenses that I believe will end up in the top 20 in the nation. And we’ll play another good one this week. As ugly as it has looked at times, I always believe there’s growth in those moments.

    “... Our guys are trying. It’s been a struggle.”

    As far as Saturday’s opponent, Fresno isn’t as strong as last year’s team that went 10-3 overall and earned a bowl bid.

    So far, the Bulldogs only win came against California Polytechnic State University (35-7) while losing to Oregon State (35-32) and at USC (45-17).

    They’ll be without starting quarterback Jake Haener, who was injured last week. His replacement, sophomore Logan Fife, came off the bench and played against UConn last year, completing 7 of 13 passes with one touchdown and one interception.

    Running back Jordan Mims is Fresno State’s most productive offensive weapon, averaging 103 yards per game.

    The Huskies are 0-6 all-time against teams from the Mountain West. In the season opener, they lost at Utah State, 31-20.

    During his weekly press conference, Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford pointed out that UConn has played a hard schedule.

    “Coach Mora, who I know from coaching in the Pac-12, is going to have his guys ready to play,” Tedford said. “Even though they have been over-matched in some of those games and situations, they really play hard. … It is impressive to watch them play as hard as they play on tape, and it doesn’t matter if they get down, they are very competitive. I expect to get their best shot, no doubt about it.

    “We’re going to have to play very well to be successful.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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