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UConn had been redesigning its offense around Tyler Phommachanh for three weeks, taking advantage of his elusive running and improvisational passing skills.
Then in the opening minutes at Vanderbilt on Saturday night, Phommachanh went out with a leg injury. Sophomore Steven Krajewski came in, and the offense continued to make positive strides.
“They’re both dual-threat quarterbacks with their own strengths and ways,” coach Lou Spanos said Sunday, after reviewing film of UConn’s 30-28 loss. “You see our offense evolve since I took over. You see the RPOs ( run-pass options), the movement, and Steve did an outstanding job of coming out and running our offense.”
Phommachanh has a lower left leg injury, and Spanos would not offer more specific information. “Tyler will do a follow-up this week, and we’ll see later on in the week,” he said.
If Phommachanh, the freshman from Stratford and Avon Old Farms, is going to miss significant time, Krajewski, a sophomore, will be at the controls at UMass next Saturday and vs. Yale Oct. 16, the Huskies’ two best chances to notch victories this season.
He led an impressive rally at Vanderbilt, completing 18 of 34 passes for 264 yards, two TDs and two interceptions, and ran it six times for 58 and a TD. After the Huskies had fallen behind 27-16 with 8 minutes to play, he generated two long, quick drives, throwing a touchdown pass to Kevens Clercius and running 17 yards for a score to give UConn a 28-27 lead with 1:07 remaining.
Vanderbilt (2-3) worked the ball downfield and won the game on Joseph Bulovas’ 31-yard field goal.
For Krajewski, and the Huskies, it was a far cry from his previous appearance, a 49-0 loss to Purdue in Week 3. He was 14 for 25 for 99 yards with an interception in that game.
“We always talk in practice about getting ‘game ready,’” Spanos said, “and what we stress is, it doesn’t matter if you’re first team or second team, make your reps count and look at what other players at other positions are doing. So when the next man is up, you saw that during the game. Steve embraced the role, was ready to go and maximized it.”
After the Huskies were outscored 184-35 in their first four games, their losses to Wyoming and Vanderbilt came down to the final play.
“At the start of the meeting, I talked about the last two games and what we did,” Spanos said. “Now, our mindset is, we’ve got to finish, and they understand the message.”
Here are some of the positive and negative developments from the game at Vanderbilt:
Yardage: The Huskies had 100-yard games from running back Nate Carter (130 on 24 carries) and receiver Keelan Marion (102 on four catches, including a spectacular grab for a 40-yard TD in the second quarter). UConn’s 523 yards total offense was a testament to improvement on the offensive line.
Receiving: The Huskies’ receiving corps took a big hit early in the season with Cam Ross and Matt Drayton going down with injuries, but have gotten strong performances in recent weeks from Marion, Clercius, who had four catches Saturday for 68 yards, including the catch of the night on a tipped ball on the last drive; and Aaron Turner (three for 12 yards).
“Kevens three years ago was on our scout team,” Spanos said. “He was a red zone threat back then. He put the time in, great concentration and focus, and showcased it. I recruited Keelan, and he gets better. The more reps he gets, he gets better.”
Duel threat: Phommachanh and Krajewski aren’t the Huskies’ only dual threats. Senior tight end Jay Rose, a quarterback at Southington High, had five catches for 91 yards and, with a new offensive approach unafraid to try some trickery, he was used twice on options, catching the ball wide and throwing a pass. He completed one for 26 yards.
“You’ve seen him blossom,” Spanos said. “Yesterday he was unbelievable, making yards after the catch and his throws, did a good job of blocking, too. And his throwing, hey, 50 percent in baseball, that gets you in the Hall of Fame. I’m proud of him.”
Defense: UConn did give up 439 yards, 6.0 per play, but was more effective in spots. The Huskies forced four three-and-outs, including two late in the game to get the ball back for a chance to win, and held Vanderbilt to 6-for-16 on third down. Ian Swenson had nine tackles, eight solo. Jackson Mitchell had seven tackles, including a sack, and an interception.
Flags: UConn had some ill-timed penalties among the 12. After scoring to take the lead, a personal foul, illegal hands to the face, called against freshman Mark Didio on the ensuing kickoff, allowed Vanderbilt to start its winning drive at its 40-yard line. Spanos said the penalty was the correct call.
“The initial contact was good,” Spanos said, “but as a young player, he has to realize he has to keep his hands on the nameplate. His hands started creeping up, creeping up and then kind of like a pass rusher, he put hands to the face.
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.