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    Thursday, September 28, 2023

    UConn comeback falls short in third straight loss, this time a disappointing setback to FIU

    East Hartford — They never expected to be in this position, staring at an 0-3 record.

    They’ve convinced that they’re better than that.

    Yet, the UConn Huskies remain winless after a second straight disappointing performance, this time in a 24-17 loss to Florida International University before 20,405 fans at Rentschler Field.

    The positive feelings from last year’s surprising six win season that ended with the program’s first bowl bid since 2015 are fading away.

    After the loss, UConn coach Jim Mora, who’s in his second season, vowed the program will not go back to where it was prior to taking over.

    “Disappointing start to the season,” Mora said. “Knew when we took over this job, it wasn’t going to be easy. And it’s not. But I’ll promise you this, that I’m not going to allow this program — and I don’t mean this as an offense to anybody, at all, period, but there’s facts in life — I will not let this program descend to what it was.

    “I promise our fans that. I promise our student body that. I promise our athletic director that. I promise our president that. I promise these players that. It will not happen. Now that may be hard to believe right now because we’re sitting here 0-3. But we’re going to get this thing figured out.”

    There was no consolation in UConn’s comeback attempt that fell just short on Saturday.

    Trailing by 21 points at halftime, the Huskies emerged from a prolonged funk that extended back to last week’s road loss at Georgia State.

    The defense buckled down and didn’t allow a point in the second half while a struggling offense showed signs of life and scored 14 points.

    The Huskies almost forced overtime after trailing 24-3 at intermission.

    But an offensive holding penalty negated Justin Joly’s 11-yard touchdown reception with 58 seconds left. And then they came up short on a completed fourth down pass play from the FIU 21.

    There’s plenty of blame to spread around.

    Start with the defense, which gave up two long touchdown passes, covering 45 and 64 yards, in the second quarter when FIU scored 17 points.

    UConn’s offense, which has produced just six touchdowns and two field goals in three games, continues to sputter.

    “Our offense has not been anywhere close to what it needs to be to win football games,” Mora said.

    Redshirt junior Ta’Quan Roberson struggled with his accuracy in his first start since last season’s opener during which he suffered a season-ending knee injury. He completed 15 of 32 passes for 170 yards and threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Devontae Houston that covered 37 yards and closed the gap to 24-17 early in the fourth quarter.

    “Overall, I’ve got to play better,” said Roberson, who became the starter after Joe Fagnano had a season-ending shoulder injury last week. “I can’t let the team down.”

    In an encouraging sign, UConn’s running game actually looked more like it did last season when it averaged 190 yards per game. Houston led the way with 126 yards – 76 more yards than the entire team piled up vs. Georgia State – on 19 carries.

    A poor first half was just too hard for the Huskies to overcome against a team that they beat 33-12 on the road last season.

    FIU built a comfortable halftime lead behind the play of true freshman quarterback Keyone Jenkins, who threw for two touchdowns in the first half and also scored on a one-yard sneak on the game’s first series for a lead that the Panthers (3-1) would never relinquish.

    Jenkins finished 15 for 27 for 284 yards.

    UConn’s only points before intermission came on Joe McFadden’s 26-yard field goal on the team’s first drive of the game.

    Before the kick, the Huskies already trailed 7-0 because they allowed FIU to make right down the field, going 75 yards in six plays. Jenkins scored from one yard out on a quarterback sneak.

    The Huskies made it interesting.

    Down by 21, 303-pound defensive tackle Jelani Stafford, who ran the ball three times for seven yards, plowed into the end zone from the one to cap a second-half opening drive for the Huskies, who went 82 yards in eight plays.

    Then, with 14 minutes left in the game, Roberson hooked up with Houston for a 37-yard scoring play to slice the deficit to seven.

    The Huskies couldn’t capitalize on their chances the rest of the way.

    In their final possession, they started with good field position, setting up at the FIU 47 with 2:41 left.

    With help from a pass interference penalty, UConn moved to within striking distance of the end zone.

    On fourth down from the FIU 11, Roberson lofted a pass in the corner of the end zone to Joly who hauled it in and deftly stayed in bounds for a touchdown with 58 seconds remaining.

    But a holding call on offensive lineman Chase Lundt negated the game-tying score. And on a replay of the fourth down, Roberson connected with Cam Ross who was tackled at the FIU 9.

    FIU ran out the clock to end the game.

    “We were disappointed, because these are the games that you want to win, that you have to win,” Stafford said about the post-game locker room mood. “It was a must win for us all week. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it done.”

    The schedule just gets tougher for the Huskies, who will host No. 21 Duke (3-0) next Saturday afternoon.

    Mora is adamant that his team will turn it around.

    “As bad as it seems right now, this team will recover,” Mora said. “We will fight back. We will not let people down that jumped on and supported us after the six win season last year, which I remind everybody we all said wasn’t good enough.

    “There’s no quit in us. But we can’t come out and start a game the way that we started the game against anybody.”


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