UConn comes up short against East Carolina 41-38
East Hartford — Even if kicker Michael Tarbutt hadn't missed the game-tying field goal in the UConn football team's first Sunday home game in more than 100 years, the Huskies were going to walk out of Rentschler Field with more questions than answers regarding its porous defensive unit.
UConn gave up nearly 200 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in the first quarter alone. Despite a spirited second-half comeback, the early hole resulted in a 41-38 loss before an announced crowd of 14,036 in what is believed to be UConn's first home Sunday game since 1914.
"We put our backs up against the wall early because of some of the things we didn't do. Between missed tackles, missed assignments we had no other choice but to fight and come back," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "When we do our jobs, you saw what took place. That is frustrating and that is my job to figure that out, how can I get them to play and do their jobs all the time, that is frustrating part about teaching and coaching. If guys don't do that, then you have to find other guys who can and that is what we are going to continue to do."
The numbers through three games are not only frightening, but they are record breaking. Since making the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2002, the Huskies haven't given up more total yards and passing yards during any three game stretch than the 1,669 yards of total offense and 1,239 yards of passing offense through the first three games of the season.
UConn (1-2, 0-1 in the American Athletic Conference) found itself only down 13 at halftime, but on the first offensive play of the second half, ECU quarterback Thomas Sirk connected with Davon Grayson for a 75-yard touchdown pass.
When UConn answered back with freshman walk-on receiver Mason Donaldson grabbing a 12-yard touchdown reception to cut the lead back to 13, the Pirates sliced through the Huskies' defense for another scoring drive capped by Hussein Howe's 14-yard scoring run.
"It comes down to technique, most of the plays that happen come down to technique," said senior linebacker Junior Joseph, who had a team-high 14 tackles including the Huskies' only sack. "We all have to be better.
"We all have to be on the same page, limit mistakes in order to have a chance to win."
UConn forced punts on three of the next four possessions and were helped by a missed field goal.
Arkeel Newsome sandwiched an 8-yard touchdown run and 79-yard touchdown reception around Tarbutt's 20-yard field goal to pull the Huskies within three points with 5:48 to play.
A key third-down tackle by Joseph enabled UConn to get the ball back down by three with 2:34 to play.
After a holding penalty wiped out a 21-yard completion from Bryant Shirreffs to Donaldson, Shirreffs connected with Aaron McLean for a 35-yard pass to keep the drive alive.
A questionable personal foul penalty against ECU after a reception by Quayon Skanes gave the Huskies the ball at the ECU 24. Rather than try for the end zone, UConn dumped the ball off to set up Tarbutt for a manageable field goal attempt. With 6 seconds to play, Tarbutt was wide right and ECU celebrated its first win after an 0-3 start.
"Stuff like that is going to happen in life, it is about how you respond to it," said Shirreffs, who threw for a career high 406 yards. "I thought our guys did a great job. Driving down the field on the last drive coming back, unfortunately we can't look at it that way because a loss is a loss. You can (play) better and not put yourself in that position, I wish I could have some plays back. it is back to watching those mistakes, correcting them this week and trying not to make them this week."
Tarbutt said the snap by Brian Keating and hold by Brett Graham were fine but he simply missed the kick.
"I don't think it came around to me not having a lot of experience in that situation, it was more of me not getting the job done," Tarbutt said. "I think 9 out of 10 times I'll (make the kick).”
Newsome finished with 170 yards on eight receptions and broke Joe Markus' UConn career record for receptions by a running back and became the first UConn running back with 1,000 career receiving yards. Donaldson had six catches for 108 yards while Kevin Mensah ran for 107 yards,
The loss could be a costly one as center Ryan Crozier left with a knee injury and Edsall said "it doesn't look good." Hergy Mayala left the game on the second offensive play with what Edsall believes was a high ankle sprain. Mayala was wide open on the first play but Shirreffs overthrew him by a few yards. Punt and kickoff returner Jordan Swann left with a concussion. The Huskies also played without starting safety Tony Watkins and reserve defensive end James Atkins.
Grayson finished with 223 yards on 11 receptions with touchdown grabs of 17 and 24 yards in the first half to go with his 75-yard TD catch. Thomas Sirk threw for 426 yards.
Donaldson's first career catch went for a 45-yard touchdown, while Nate Hopkins added a 1-yard touchdown run late in the first half.
UConn normally stays in its locker room when the national anthem is played, but Edsall was asked what he would do if one of his players were to openly protest by kneeling as some professional athletes have done in recent weeks.
"It is a free country and people can express their beliefs how they choose,” Edsall said. "I can't influence people and what they think. I know what I think and what I believe in, but everybody is their own person and everybody has to understand that if they make choices and they make decisions, they have to live with those decisions. What you want to stand for, it is part of our constitution, that is what this country is all about."