True freshman QB Turner a bit shaky in first career start for UConn football team

·5 min read

Sep. 5—Zion Turner is 1-0 as a starting quarterback at the Division I FBS level after completing 14 of 22 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the UConn football team's 28-3 victory over FCS Central Connecticut Saturday at Pratt & Whitney Stadium.

But the Huskies' victory did not come without a few true freshman mistakes from their young QB.

Turner fumbled when his arm was hit on a pass attempt in the first quarter, and he tried to force a pass into a tight window in the end zone in the closing seconds of the first half that was tipped and intercepted, preventing the Huskies from attempting a field goal.

Still, the Huskies were encouraged by Turner's performance in his first career start.

"He completed 60 percent of his passes," UConn coach Jim Mora said Sunday on a Zoom call with reporters. "He threw two touchdown passes. Yeah, he had the interception at the end of the first half, which wasn't a good play, but it's a play he'll learn from. And as I said after the game, there's going to be some growing pains."

The Huskies finished 15-for-20 on third- and fourth-down conversions, a 75 percent success rate.

"That's really, really good," Mora said Sunday. "Anytime you can have your defense sitting over (on the sideline) resting while your offense is wearing down an opponent, that's absolutely what you want. So much of that is being able to run the ball effectively and get yourself into third and short or third and manageable or fourth and really short where you can go for it, and then having success. ... We weren't bad last week on third down, we were 44, 46 percent. And this week, a lot better. So we're trending in the right direction."

Turner was without two of his top pass catchers, as Keelan Marion suffered a broken collarbone on his touchdown reception in the Huskies' season opener against Utah State and Cam Ross sustained a season-ending broken foot in fall camp.

But several other receivers stepped up in their place, including Jacob Flynn, the walk-on-turned-scholarship wide receiver from Southington who filled Marion's hole on the depth chart and caught a 10-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to put the Huskies up, 21-3.

Aaron Turner led the way with 57 receiving yards on two catches. Ten different receivers registered at least one reception.

"It was good to see Nigel (Fitzgerald) back out there, he didn't play in our first game, he was still working through that hamstring injury," Mora said. "But he played 32 or 33 plays, maybe 36 plays yesterday, so that's a pretty good dose. ... Dajon (Harrison) showed up and did some things. Jacob Flynn showed up and did some things. I thought that Aaron Turner did some things. Those guys are going to have to continue to evolve into different roles. (Offensive coordinator) Nick (Charlton) will put them in a good position to showcase what they do well and then they have to go do it. ... If you can't soften a team up by throwing it, it gets difficult to run the football."

UConn's improved offensive line didn't allow a sack and helped the Huskies' running backs gain 245 yards on the ground against Utah State. The unit gave up two sacks against CCSU but continued to open up gaping running lanes for the Huskies' ballcarriers.

Nate Carter finished with 123 yards on 23 carries, his second-straight game over 100-yards and the fourth 100-yard game of his career. Brian Brewton provided 62 yards on 10 carries and Devontae Houston added 41 yards on four attempts.

UConn finished with 274 yards on the ground, marking the first time since 2018 that it has gone over 240 yards rushing in back-to-back games.

"We have four running backs and then Robert (Burns), he's kind of a hybrid fullback, running back," Mora said Sunday. "And I think (running backs coach) E.J. (Barthel) is doing a really good job of using those guys. We all know what Nate has done, it's very evident just looking at his numbers, but when you watch Brian and Devontae, they're like lightning in a bottle. They take some hits, because they're not the biggest guys in the world, but when they can find that crease, which they've been able to find, they get through there in a hurry. It's pretty impressive."

Mora said he felt as if he "handcuffed" his defensive linemen against Utah State, limiting their ability to "tee-off." So the Huskies turned their pass rushers loose against CCSU and three players (Dal'mont Gourdine, Collin McCarthy, and Sokoya McDuffie) each recorded a sack.

"We were disappointed with the way we played (against Utah State), so we knew what we had to come do it today to make a statement," Gourdine said Saturday.

Tougher opponents are ahead for UConn, which hosts Syracuse Saturday night at Rentschler Field.

The Orange hammered ACC foe Louisville 31-7 on Saturday in their season opener. Star running back Sean Tucker racked up 183 total yards, 98 on the ground, and two touchdowns, while quarterback Garrett Shrader completed 18 of 25 passes for 237 yards and two scores. He also ran the ball 16 times for 95 yards and a touchdown.

UConn leads the all-time series with Syracuse, 6-5. The Huskies and Orange square off for the first time since 2018, a 51-21 Syracuse win at home. The Orange won 31-24 in their last trip to East Hartford in 2016.

"They're a massive team on offense," Mora said Sunday. "They've got a 388-pound left guard, their tight ends weigh 270, (Tucker) is a Heisman Trophy candidate, (Shrader) is a 6-4, 220-pound guy who can run and throw the ball equally well. He's a dangerous runner. Their receivers are 6-4, 6-5 and 6-6, so it's a really big offensive football team, and it's going to take all we have to line up and hope to get a win."

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