UConn can't afford to always have Shirreffs on the run
East Hartford — Few things fire up a football team more than the sight of their quarterback fearlessly taking on a defender while gaining valuable yards.
Few things also make a head coach hold his breath more than that sight.
UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs made his share of daring dashes in Thursday's 24-21 season-opening victory over Maine at Rentschler Field. The redshirt junior led the team in carries (20) and rushing yards (95).
Some runs were designed plays but the majority were Shirreffs either escaping pressure or electing to try to advantage of an opportunity for a significant gain.
"I didn't expect that," Shirreffs said of his number of running plays. "I would like not to do that, but it just happens. Some plays I wish I could take back, others I was happy with."
Without his playmaking ability, the Huskies would have likely been upset victims agains the Black Bears. Overall, Shirreffs, who went 16-for-23 for 162 yards, accounted for 257 of UConn's 362 yards of total offense.
UConn almost paid for its spotty performance on both sides of the football, but Bobby Puyol's 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining pulled out the win.
In his second year as a starter, Shirreffs was at the heart of the game-winning drive that covered 50 yards in 10 plays and took one minute, 37 seconds. He rushed four times and completed four passes, making an 18-yard connection on a rollout pass to Brian Lemelle to put UConn in position for a makeable field goal.
On the previous drive, Shirreffs took off on a 35-yard run that eventually set up Arkeel Newsome's game-tying two-yard touchdown scamper.
But Shirreffs also committed UConn's only turnover, a victim of a strip sack by Maine's Najee Goode who returned the fumble 74 yards for touchdown early in the fourth quarter. He also missed some open receivers.
Coach Bob Diaco gave Shirreffs mostly positive reviews.
"He's a hard-nosed guy who made some big plays and put the ball in the right spot," Diaco said. "He made some plays with his legs to keep drives alive and was very exciting. But he also was in the point of attack of a game-changing turnover or this one wouldn't have been this close.
"He was off target a bit so he's got some things to clean up. I'm pleased with his effort and some of the things he did and the plays he made with his legs and the way he orchestrated the two-minute drive down the stretch."
The bigger issue may be whether UConn can afford to have Shirreffs running the ball as much as he did. He's too valuable to be on the receiving end of the punishing hits that he absorbed on Thursday.
Here's a couple that come to mind:
• On third and goal from the five on UConn's second quarter scoring drive, Shirreffs bolted out of the pocket and headed toward the left corner of the goal line. A Maine defender delivered a teeth-rattling hit that knocked Shirreffs' helmet off and the ball was ruled down at the one.
• On UConn's next possession, he took a hard blow to his mid-section on a five-yard gain that picked up a first down. To his credit and his toughness, he got right back up and returned to the huddle.
Those kind of plays are part of the reason why his teammates greatly respect Shirreffs as a player and leader.
"Bryant has always been a great quarterback," Noel Thomas, UConn's top receiver, said recently. "But he's a gamer. He wants to win more than anybody I know."
There's no doubt having a mobile quarterback like Shirreffs will give an opposing defense a major headache. Maine coach Joe Harasymiak talked about how much the UConn quarterback's scrambles hurt his team.
Navy, which hosts UConn next Saturday afternoon in an American Athletic Conference opener, will face that challenge next.
With that said, it's far from an ideal situation for your starting quarterback and most important player on the team to consistently run the football and be a target for defenders.
The Huskies need Shirreffs to remain healthy. They're not the same team without him, as they saw last year when he sat out the Temple game after suffering a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit in an upset of Houston on Nov. 21. They scored a season-low for points in a 27-3 loss to the Owls on Nov. 28.
More production out of the tailback position — Newsome and Ron Johnson combined for just 105 yards on 30 carries against Maine — and better decision making by Shirreffs would likely help cut back on his daring dashes.
It might not be as exciting to watch but more beneficial in the long run for Shirreffs and his fellow Huskies.