UConn scores late to beat Maine in season opener
East Hartford — Perhaps there was little too much drama considering the opponent.
But at least the UConn football team wrote a happy ending to its adventure-filled season opener against underdog Maine.
Redshirt junior Bobby Puyol drilled a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining to lift the Huskies to a 24-21 victory before 29,377 fans at Rentschler Field.
"That was a good hard fought game, a lot of fun and very exciting game," coach Bob Diaco said. "We're going to have a whole bunch of fourth quarter fights down the stretch. ... We didn't finish those games in the past and we did tonight.
"So I'm very excited about that. And I'm very excited about the team and their intestinal fortitude and their guts and their grit and their ability to execute down the stretch."
The Huskies overcame a bumpy first three quarters, fighting back from a 21-14 deficit with just under 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. They scored on their final two drives to avoid the upset.
Tailback Arkeel Newsome found the end zone from two yards out for the game-tying touchdown with 6:36 left.
Then, after Mikal Myers blocked Patrick Leonard's 47-yard field goal attempt, UConn drove from its own 30-yard line, riding quarterback Bryant Shirreffs who ran four times for 12 yards and passed for 37 yards, including a pivotal 18-yard strike to Brian Lemelle.
Maine tried to ice Puyol by calling a timeout. It didn't work, as Puyol booted the winning kick right down the middle.
"Winning college football is hard against anybody," Diaco said. "Not much difference from one outfit from the next. I'm so proud of those guys for grinding it out."
It was far from a masterpiece for the Huskies, who were locked in a 14-all tie with their Football Championship Subdivision foe heading into the fourth quarter.
A crucial turnover nearly cost the Huskies the game.
With UConn driving for the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter, Maine's Najee Goode raced in unblocked and sacked quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, causing a fumble. Goode scooped up the loose ball and bolted 76 yards, giving the Black Bears a 21-14 lead.
The Huskies answered, scoring on their next drive. Newsome capped off a six-play, 54-yard drive with a touchdown run.
Offensively, the Huskies struggled to gain any consistent traction. The Huskies outgained the Black Bears, 362-309 overall.
Shirreffs led the team in rushing with 95 yards on 20 carried and also went 16-for-23 for 162 yards. Junior tailback Ron Johnson rushed for two touchdowns, scoring from one yard in the first quarter and 21 yards in the third quarter.
Early on, UConn's offense looked like last year's sputtering attack. The first three drives came up empty as the Huskies failed to convert on several short yardage situations.
His teammates call Shirreffs a gamer. UConn football fans saw why midway through the second quarter.
On third down and goal from the five, Shirreffs raced out of the pocket and took a jarring hit near the goal line before falling into the end zone. After a review, he was ruled down at the one because his helmet popped off there.
By rule, Shirreffs had to leave the field. Backup Garrett Anderson came in and handed off to Johnson, who ran into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown.
It was one of the few offensive highlights of the first half.
Maine quarterback Dan Collins (19-for-33, 269 yards) threw a pair of touchdown passes to keep the Black Bears in the contention.
UConn improved to 11-4 in season opener since moving to Division I-A in 2002.