Just the outstretched hands of Wyoming’s Rome Webber separated the winless UConn football team from an improbable and unlikely first win of the season instead of a 24-22 defeat to the Cowboys on Saturday.
UConn, which had led from the 11:39 mark of the first quarter to the 6:31 mark of the fourth, found themselves in a more familiar position with four seconds left in the game.
But hope, which had been all but lost after the Huskies allowed two fourth-quarter scores and trailed by eight points, was pumped back into the announced crowd of 12,538 at Rentschler Stadium as freshman Nate Carter capped off a 15-play, 64-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to pull the Huskies within two points with mere seconds remaining in regulation.
On the would-be game-tying 2-point conversion UConn freshman quarterback Tyler Phommachanh (19-for-40, 171 yards, one touchdown and one interception) dropped back to pass, looked to his right and let a pass go in the direction of Aaron Turner in the flat, who he’d connected with six times on the day.
Only there was Gandy, who had run untouched around the edge and leaped high enough to tip the pass off its course in front of Turner and crush UConn’s comeback bid.
So close, but yet another loss, as unbeaten Wyoming hung on for against the 0-5 Huskies, who were 30 1/2 point underdogs.
“We’re getting better,” UConn interim head coach Lou Spanos said. “Their heads have got to be up, because what they did, they fought. They fought to the end ... we’ve got to finish the next opportunity.”
Here’s how it happened.
The turning point
UConn’s defense put together its best performance of the season holding the Cowboys (4-0) to just 10 points on their first nine drives of the game — two of which ended in interceptions.
But the Huskies’ defense, which had allowed more than 40 points in three of UConn’s four losses, finally broke. Wyoming orchestrated a 10-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run from Xazavian Valladay that gave the Cowboys their first lead of the game following an extra point kick, 17-16. There was 6:31 remaining.
On the first play of UConn’s ensuing drive, Phommachanh — who had played largely mistake-free all day — was intercepted by Gandy. Wyoming scored five plays later on a 2-yard run from Titus Swen to take a 24-16 lead with 3:34 left in the game.
“They had long drives, we had missed opportunities,” Spanos said. “We could have done a better job swarm tackling, collectively, because they had some yardage after contact. They kept on attacking and attacking.”
Wyoming was 2-for-2 on third-down conversions in the fourth quarter, 9-for-15 on the game. UConn finished just 3-for-13.
Freshman Joe McFadden kicked a 28-yard field goal with 11:39 left in the first quarter to give UConn a 3-0 lead, its first over an FBS opponent all season. The Huskies’ next score showed they weren’t just a one-kick wonder, though.
With 1:25 left in the first quarter Phommachanh handed the ball off to Carter, who tossed it to Turner on an end-around, who then pitched it back to the quarterback. Phommachanh launched a pass down the right sideline to a wide open Jay Rose, who caught the ball, leapt over a Wyoming defender at the 5-yard line and into the end zone for a 41-yard score. An extra point kick from McFadden gave the Huskies a 10-0 lead.
“We worked on that play all practice,” Carter said. “We got the look that we wanted, we knew what we could expect out of the defense and the coaches made a great call and we executed it well. It worked out, and it really brought the team a lot of confidence the rest of the game.”
McFadden tacked on another field goal early in the second quarter before Wyoming responded with one of its own with 4:44 left in the half to cut UConn’s lead to 13-3. The Cowboys finally crossed into the end zone on an 18-yard pass from Sean Chambers to Isaiah Neyor with 10:15 left in the third quarter, cutting UConn’s lead to just three points.
Wyoming finished with 351 total yards of offense to UConn’s 281.
UConn’s secondary shook some of its early-season mistakes. In the first four games, missed tackles and assignments turned UConn’s defense porous and susceptible to big plays. But Saturday those were at a minimum.
On Wyoming’s opening drive freshman Malik Dixon broke up a second-down pass attempt from Chambers to Ayden Eberhardt. Two plays later the Cowboys were forced to punt. On the ensuing possession following Rose’s touchdown sophomore Myles Bell intercepted Chambers, setting up a drive that ended with McFadden’s second field goal. Bell also broke up a third-down pass later in the second quarter forcing Wyoming to punt after a three-and-out.
Bell left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter. Spanos said he was “in good spirits” and will be further evaluated.
Junior defensive back Jeremy Lucien intercepted a deep pass from Chambers with 2:31 left in the third quarter. The Huskies’ offense made good on the turnover, and orchestrated a 16-play, 74-yard drive that ate up more than six minutes and ended with a 35-yard field goal from McFadden to make it 16-10 with 11:16 left in the game.
“We did take a lot of steps forward,” Lucien said. “I think communication was at a much higher level than it has been for the last couple of weeks, everybody was really tuned into their assignments.”
When UConn needed a stop most though, the Cowboys — who had won their first two games of the season on last-minute touchdowns — marched down the field effortlessly. Wyoming averaged over seven yards per play on their final two scoring drives as 71 of their 106 collective yards came on the ground.
“I wouldn’t say that we got flat at all,” Lucien said. “We just need to, now, finish the game. We got off to a great start, now we’ve just got to work on finishing it up.”
The Cowboys did themselves no favors from a penalty standpoint. Wyoming was penalized nine times for 99 total yards, including four personal fouls in the first quarter worth 60 yards, and three pass interference calls on UConn’s final drive that ended in Carter’s touchdown.
UConn travels to Vanderbilt Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. game. The Commodores (1-3) were shut out by No. 2 Georgia 62-0 on Saturday.
Shawn McFarland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.