UConn football fights to the finish in close loss to Illinois
East Hartford — UConn has insisted since preseason that it is an improved football team.
The Huskies just lacked proof on game day.
They have it now.
Pushing a Big Ten football team right to the final minutes is evidence that they are indeed better and more equipped to compete against Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
The final: Illinois 31, UConn 23.
An emotional Randy Edsall, whose mother Barbara passed away earlier on Saturday, fought back tears as he spoke about his team's inspired effort and fight.
"Really proud of our guys in terms of how they played," Edsall said. "They played hard, played every play like the last play they're ever going to play. By doing that, gave them an opportunity to win. That's all you can ask as a coach.
"Hate losing. But even though we didn't win, I thought we made improvements and thought we got better. I think we found out more about our team. Hopefully, they understand if we do this, we've got a chance to be a good football team."
The Huskies build a 13-0 lead in the second quarter and made big plays on defense to stick around after giving up 24 straight points.
Their upset hopes didn't completely disappear until true freshman quarterback Jack Zergiotis threw his second interception with two minutes, 13 seconds remaining. Illinois (2-0) ran out the clock and jogged off Rentschler Field with a non-conference road victory.
"Everyone counted us out from the get-go," said linebacker DJ Morgan, who had a strip sack and fumble recovery. "I want to say they had us losing by 22 points. We see the comments on social media and all that stuff. But we don't feed into it. We know what kind of team we are. We know it's different from last year.
"A close loss like this still stings because we know we should have won this game. But at the end of the day, we know we're making the right strides in the right direction."
The Huskies just may have found their quarterback of the future in Zergiotis who showed remarkable composure in his first start while completing 21 of 31 passes for 275 yards. He filled in for last week's starter Michael Beaudry who suffered an undisclosed injury in practice.
Zergiotis needed to deliver with the running game producing just 10 yards on 29 carries.
"I think it was a game we should have won," Zergiotis said. "We came up short, but I'm proud of the team. They did a great job. There were a couple of plays that I could have made that would have impacted the game, but we're going to get better and move on."
Edsall declared Zergiotis, who's from Montreal, the starting quarterback after the game. He added there is no quarterback controversy.
"Jack did a hell of a job," Edsall said. "He's kind of got a little bit of the 'It' Factor. There's some things that we'll do to help him be better."
So many things for the Huskies to build on.
Defensively, they delivered some key third down stops and also provided a touchdown for the first time since October 2017 at Temple. They limited Illinois to 355 yards of total offense.
Redshirt junior Tyler Coyle returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown to open the scoring.
"We went over that play a lot in practice and I knew that play was coming...," Coyle said. "In football, you really don't see a lot of green grass in front of you like that. I made a play for the team."
The Huskies (1-1) got off to a good start offensively, but two deep drives resulted in just two field goals by Clayton Harris, who converted from 35 and 29 yards out. He added a 33-yarder with 11:39 left in the game to cut the gap to eight.
Illinois wrestled back the momentum, scoring 24 straight points. Michigan transfer Brandon Peters (22-for-33, 225 yards) threw for four touchdowns, including two to Josh Imatorbhebhe for nine and 13 yards.
Imatorbhebhe's second TD catch extended the lead to 31-20 with about six minutes left in the third quarter.
But the Huskies, who watched so many games turn into routs last season, refused to buckle.
Sophomore Kevon Jones made a big tackle on third down and three to force Illinois to punt with 4:28 remaining, giving the Huskies some hope.
Zergiotis completed a pass 24 yards to Cam Ross to start the drive and connected to Ross again for five yards. But his ill-advised pass was picked off by senior Dele Harding with 2:13 left to end the threat.
The Huskies gained some confidence from the close loss and proved they could play with but not yet beat a Big Ten program.
"This is a Big Ten team," Coyle said. "They came in and thought they were going to run through us. We held our ground and we did all we could to try to win the game."
UConn now has an off week next weekend and visits Indiana on Sept. 21.