UConn’s best chance to salvage something tangible from this long, lost football season — namely a win over an FBS opponent — ended with a fresh batch of frustration Saturday.
In a matchup of two of the worst teams in major college football, only one could remain winless, and UConn now wears that distinction. UMass dominated the second half and defeated the Huskies 27-13 at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, before 12,765.
“We just didn’t execute well,” said running back Nate Carter, who gained 147 yards on 20 carries, a bright light for UConn. “We had a lot of plays we wanted to run, and we just have to win on execution, finishing those plays and coming out of these tough games and just continue to fight. We’ve got to learn how to fight.”
The Minutemen (1-5) ended their losing streak at 16 games. UConn (0-7) has now lost 11 in a row dating back to 2019.
The key sequence: Down three and pinned deep in its own territory UConn lost it grip as quarterback Steven Krajewski threw an interception to UMass’ Bryce Watts, who ran it back to the 6-yard line. Ellis Merriweather scored from the 1-yard line to give UMass a 20-10 lead with 12:46 to play.
UConn drove downfield quickly on the ensuing possession, but had to settle for a field goal. Then UMass put it away with 78-yard drive, Zamar Wise scoring from the 1-yard line. Just to leave no doubt who’s tops among New England independents, UMass took the ball right back on an inside kick and eventually ran out the clock.
UConn came into the game with — what else? — turmoil, this time the result of a COVID-19 outbreak that left interim coach Lou Spanos and offensive coordinator Frank Giufre unable to participate. The Huskies were also without their top offensive lineman, Ryan Van Demark.
“These guys have been through so much adversity,” said Dennis Dottin-Carter, the defensive line coach who served as head coach Saturday. “The world is a crazy place. ... They understood how to handle it. The best part about it was we didn’t have more guys out. It’s a testament to those guys, how smart they are and how important it is to them that they stayed safe and we didn’t have a big outbreak. We were ready for it, it’s unfortunate, it’s unexpected, but the guys prepared like they didn’t miss a beat, like everything was on track, but the game didn’t go the way we wanted it to go.”
After two competitive games, two-point losses to Wyoming and Vanderbilt, UConn was a 3 1/2-point favorites and had given reason for hope. Now, it feels like rock bottom all over again. UMass was 129th in defense and 127th in offense among 130 FBS teams, with UConn just a few pegs higher. UMass had been outscored 236-73 in its five losses, no closer than 14 points in any game before this one.
“There were a lot of good things we did today,” Carter said, after his second straight 100-yard game, “a lot of bad things we did today. We all played bad at certain levels, but we did some good things.”
UConn started with a three-and-out, then UMass marched methodically, 73 yards in 12 players, to take the lead on Merriweather’s 9-yard touchdown run.
The Huskies’ response was quick: Three plays, 74 yards, 56 seconds. Carter rushed for 30, and then for 10, then Krakewski made a beautiful throw to Keelan Marion for 34 yards an the tying TD.
Next possession, UConn moved 50 yards on nine plays and took the lead on Joe McFadden’s 38-yard field goal with 1:56 left in the first quarter.
UMass’ Cameron Carson hit a 21-yard field goal in the third quarter to tie it, and a 28-yard to put the Minutemen ahead on the first play of the fourth quarter,
“We were prepared,” Dottin-Carter said, “Unfortunately, we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that were there.”
Dottin-Carter, who got the call Friday telling him about the COVID outbreak, had been an interim head coach at Delaware.
“I love coaching, it doesn’t matter what role I’m in,” he said. “It’s a next-man up mentality, that was ingrained into me the first time I stepped on the field, that’s what the game of football is.”
With Giufre out, quarterbacks coach Mike Moyseenko handles the play-calling Jarren Horton, the defensive coordinator, was in charge on his end.
There’s no time table for when the coaches will be able to return.
Missing a leader
Left tackle Ryan Van Demark, starting left tackle and captain, was among the Huskies players missing due to the COVID outbreak, allowing UMass to get more pressure on the quarterback than it might have otherwise. Freshman Rayonte Brown played in his place.
“It’s tough, he’s a captain, a leader of the team,” Dottin-Carter said. “To not be able to go out there with one of your leaders, who’s been there played more football than anybody on the team. But Rayonte Devonte Brown stepped right in, didn;t miss a beat, there was no fear in his eyes. He accepted the challenge.
Krajewski, after his hot start, finished 13 for 24 for 128 yards and a touchdown. UConn gained 194 yards on the ground, 5.3 per carry. Keelan Marion caught four passes for 80 yards.
Yale, which lost to Dartmouth on Saturday, comes to Rentschler Field, UConn and Yale played annually for decades, but will be playing for the first time since 1998.
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org