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UConn overcomes bumpy start to rally for 20-9 win over Cincinnati

East Hartford — Watching UConn's offense operate, more specifically quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, can be like taking an amusement park ride.

Often, it can be a queasy experience.

But, every once in a while, it can be wildly entertaining.

It was more of the latter than the former in a much-needed 20-9 victory over Cincinnati on Saturday in an American Athletic Conference game before 24,169 fans at Rentschler Field.

The Huskies (3-3, 1-2) rebounded from a bumpy first half and mounted some impressive scoring drives in the second half to end their losing streak at two.

"It was huge, huge, a big win for the morale," Shirreffs said. "It shows what we can do just as a team and a collective unit."

Shirreffs was up and down while manning the controls, throwing two touchdown passes and overcoming two interceptions. He picked up several crucial third downs, completing 18 of 33 passes for 224 yards and also rushing for 52 yards,

"It's a little bit like a roller coaster," coach Bob Diaco said. "I hate roller coasters, I really do. I don't how else to say it. There's moments where it's like you're at the top and it's crashing. Then you're going over the loop de loop. You saw the loop de loop today. It did look a lot like a roller coaster.

"He obviously had a couple of really bonehead plays. ... He's such a passionate guy and a great leader, he puts together a couple of fantastic drives on just absolute guts and football intelligence. We just keep working with him."

A prime example of the effective Shirreffs came on the key drive that produced the go-ahead touchdown and enabled the Huskies to carry a lead into the fourth quarter for the first time all season.

Starting from their own 12, the Huskies methodically moved the ball behind a balanced attack, going 88 yards — 45 on the ground, 43 in the air — in 13 plays. Shirreffs converted two first downs by running out of the pocket.

Shirreffs connected with star wide receiver Noel Thomas, who wrestled the ball away from a defender to haul in the 26-yard touchdown strike that handed the Huskies a 14-9 lead with six and a half minutes left in the third quarter. Thomas finished with nine receptions for 103 yards.

Tailback Arkeel Newsome was another offensive catalyst. He became the first Husky to rush for over 100 yards this season, piling up 116 yards on 14 carries. His 67-yard sprint eventually set up Bobby Puyol's 30-yard field goal, extending the lead to 17-9 — their largest advantage of the season.

Newsome was held out of the first quarter for disciplinary reasons.

"Arkeel is a fantastic young man and he's made a lot of deposits in his trust bank account," Diaco said. "He had a late Friday, a little violation of how we do our business."

UConn's offense, which has sputtered all season, helped ice the victory in the fourth quarter. The Huskies burned up some valuable time, eating up six minutes, 49 seconds, and capping off the drive with Puyol's 23-yard field goal with 3:08 remaining.

A huge pat on the back goes to UConn's defense, which kept the score close until the offense came to life. The Huskies limited the damage in the first half, holding the Bearcats (3-3, 0-3) to just three field goals by Josh Pasley (25, 43 and 26 yards).

Diaco made a few changes in the secondary that paid dividends, starting fifth-year senior John Green at cornerback and moving Jamar Summers to strong safety.

"That's what the defense does," safety Obi Melifonwu said. "We feel anywhere on the field we can stop anybody. It was definitely great to have a strong defensive effort like that."

They registered three sacks and allowed just two yards rushing overall on 22 carries and came up with a key turnover — only the third of the season — trailing 9-0 late in the second quarter.  Melifonwu picked off Hayden Moore's overthrown pass over the middle.

One play later, Shirreffs hooked up with receiver Tyraiq Beals for a 59-yard touchdown pass that cut the deficit to 9-7 with 28 seconds left before half.

"It really changed the momentum," Shirreffs said.

The Huskies had dropped five straight in the series, so the win meant something extra for the veterans.

"To finally get that win over them is great," said Thomas, who had his fifth 100 yard receiving game of his career. "It's great for the program and great for us because now we can get rolling."

g.keefe@theday.com

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