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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    UConn football stumbles in season opener

    North Carolina State safety Bishop Fitzgerald (19) and defensive back Robert Kennedy (8) break up a pass to UConn wide receiver James Burns (13) during the first half an NCAA college football game in East Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
    UConn quarterback Joseph Fagnano (2) signals a first down during the first half the team's NCAA college football game against North Carolina State in East Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
    UConn running back Victor Rosa, front right, scores a touchdown in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against North Carolina State in East Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
    UConn fans cheer during warmups before an NCAA college football game against North Carolina State in East Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
    North Carolina State's Rakeim Ashford is carted off of the field after being injured in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against UConn in East Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

    East Hartford – UConn marched right down the field for a touchdown on the season’s first drive on Thursday night, much to the delight of the program’s biggest home crowd at Rentschler Field in 10 years.

    Husky fans roared their approval.

    Victor Rosa, UConn’s touchdown maker, celebrated with his teammates.

    The Huskies were on their way to a special opening night.

    “UConn football, we’re back,” said Rosa when asked what he was thinking at the time. “It’s a new year, a new team. We got beat pretty bad last year by them. And we were coming for a big win this game.

    “That was the feeling.”

    The feeling and the lead didn’t last.

    UConn struggled offensively, made too many costly penalties and missed too many tackles to beat North Carolina State, a Power Five team from the Atlantic Coast Conference, losing 24-14 before 36,526 fans, the most since drawing 42,704 against Michigan in 2013.

    “It stings right now,” coach Jim Mora said. “It really stings. We felt we had a legitimate chance to win that game. We fought them to the end. When you don’t get it done, it’s tough.”

    The final score was an improvement over last year’s meeting at NC State, which posted a 41-10 victory.

    The Huskies have made progress since then. But they weren’t in the mood to celebrate that after a tough loss.

    UConn never led after falling behind on the last play of the first half but remained close until NC State extended the lead to 10 late in the third quarter. The deficit was too much to overcome for the struggling Huskies.

    “What’s discouraging is when you see the progress but you know the problems that hurt you to lose a game and they’re all things that are within our control,” Mora said. “As a coach, I look at it as a failure on my part when any of our players make mistakes like we made tonight.

    “It’s a tough situation to be in sometimes because you are encouraged but you’re discouraged at the same time.”

    Rosa, a former Bristol Central standout, accounted for two rushing touchdowns for the Huskies, covering 18 and 71 yards. He finished with a team-best 99 yards on nine carries.

    Outside of that output, the offense sputtered behind transfer quarterback Joe Fagnano who made his UConn debut. He went 14-for-26 for 113 yards and threw an interception for his team’s only turnover.

    Defensively, UConn failed to contain dual threat quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 155 yards and rushed for a team-best 96 yards and two touchdowns.

    “He made the plays that he had to make when they needed to be made,” Mora said.

    The Huskies were outgained 364-272 overall.

    Penalties and poor execution contributed to their demise. Third down conversions also factored into the outcome, as NC State converted eight of 15 and UConn just four of 12.

    For example, a pass interference penalty hurt UConn in the third quarter..

    On fourth down and one, linebacker Tui Faumuina-Brown ran into an NC State receiver in the end zone and drew a flag when the pass fell incomplete.

    It set up the Wolfpack with a first down at the UConn 1. Two plays later, Delbert Mimms busted into the end zone for a 17-7 lead with 2:22 left.

    UConn answered on its first play on the next series, as Rosa bolted 71 yards for a score to cut the gap to 17-14.

    But Rosa earned an unsportsmanlike penalty for doing a somersault into the end zone.

    “That’s my fault,” Rosa said. “They added a 15-yard penalty to the kickoff and then we got another penalty and then they’re on (our) 27 just like that. It’s something you can’t have on this level.”

    On the kickoff, Julian Gray had a 40-yard return. An unnecessary roughness penalty by UConn’s Isiah Davis for a late hit set up NC State deep in Husky territory.

    Armstrong scored on an 8-yard run for a 24-14 edge with 34 seconds left in the third quarter.

    UConn never recovered.

    “We hurt ourselves,” defensive back Durante Jones said. “Things that we know that we’re not supposed to do, we did it. … We’ve got to do better all-around.”

    The Huskies trailed 10-7 at halftime after Brayden Narveson booted a 44-yard field goal just before intermission. Earlier, Narveson missed from 50 yards.

    Fagnano and the UConn attack provided an early jolt, driving 75 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first possession.

    Rosa, the team’s leading rusher as a freshman, completed an 18-yard touchdown run by slipping a defender and falling into the end zone.

    The impressive drive had Fagnano’s fingerprints all over it. He completed all three of his passes for a total of 26 yards and rushed for 25 yards.

    The key play came on fourth down and one from the NC State 47. Jelani Stafford, a 303-pound defensive tackle, lined up in the fullback position and Fagnano followed him for a 2-yard first down run.

    Earlier in the possession, the Huskies tried a trick play. But tight end Alexander Honig’s pass fell incomplete.

    The Huskies had trouble after that, gaining just 50 yards in the next three drives.

    NC State responded quickly, going 66 yards in nine plays to tie the score at 7-all. The elusive Armstrong found the end zone from four yards out.

    The Wolfpack defense took over from there and frustrated the Huskies.

    “Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it done for our fans,” Mora said. “Just to have the student section packed like that, I thank them. And it does make a difference.”

    Fagnano felt comfortable in his UConn debut despite the results.

    “It felt good to be out there,” Fagnano said. “This is a really good team. A really good offense, too. So many good players. It’s just about putting it all together.”


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