EAST HARTFORD- A starving man would have trouble distinguishing between Taco Bell meat and filet mignon. In the same way, UConn's 24-17 victory over Pittsburgh Friday night at Rentschler Field tasted as good as any win, even if the Huskies almost squandered a 24-point lead and still haven't scored a second-half touchdown in Big East play.
After winning their first Big East game of the season, the UConn players, normally quite subdued and calm after games, let loose a little bit. Senior defensive lineman Tim Willman, who recorded a huge sack late in the game, talked about his Gangnam-style sack dance and told reporters how he taught quarterback Chandler Whitmer to tie a bow tie. Whitmer, along with his teammates, teased Willman about his lack of rhythm and even quipped about how he certainly didn't need to add to his interception total. Senior tight end Ryan Griffin relived his Sportscenter Top 10 play, hurdling a Pittsburgh safety following a first-down reception.
"We look at each other and see what we are capable of doing," Griffin said. "Luckily tonight, we were hitting on all cylinders. We played well on both sides of the ball- both on the offensive and defensive side of things. This got us rejuvenated for the rest of the season for sure."
The Huskies were a team in desperate need of validation, to prove to themselves that all the practicing, all the film study, all the weight training would pay dividends. A win, at home on national television, provided a nice salve for a disappointing season thus far.
"This was great. Just to see everybody happy. We really needed this and the guys just played their heart out," said defensive tackle Ryan Wirth.
UConn played a nearly flawless first half of football, scoring a touchdown on an 11-play drive to open the game and getting points on four of its six first-half possessions. Whitmer (19-25, 213 yards) was dealing on third down, converting four out of seven times, and scoring on each of UConn's three red zone chances.
In the second quarter, senior Nick Williams returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown and the Huskies ran for more yards (99) in the first half than they have totalled in each of the previous four Big East contests.
"The offensive line had to make a statement. They were tired of getting beat up on and they took it upon themselves to work together," Wirth said.
UConn led, 24-0, at the half and, while the Huskies were finally playing complementary football, the Panthers looked like a team still reeling from a triple overtime loss to Notre Dame six short days ago.
In the second half, UConn predictably eased up on the throttle, returning to a more conservative team-wide approach, allowing Pittsburgh a way back into the game. It's very difficult for a team like UConn, averaging fewer than 1.5 yards per carry in Big East play, to manage the clock and put away a team on the ground.
Though sophomore running back Lyle McCombs broke a 39-yard run in the second half, and broke the 100-yard barrier for only the second time this season, the offensive line fatigued in the second half when tasked with putting the Panthers away. In fact, aside from McCombs' big gain, UConn ran for negative yardage in the second half.
Whitmer had an opportunity to seal the game with 4:30 remaining in the game, but he overthrew a wide-open Griffin and was intercepted in the end zone. Pittsburgh responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive to close the gap to 24-17 with fewer than three minutes remaining.
"I got a little excited when I saw him so wide open and really rushed the throw. I'm thinking touchdown, game over," Whitmer said.
With only two timeouts left, Pittsburgh elected not to onside kick, which meant one UConn first down would seal the game. Facing third-and-seven, Whitmer delivered a 17-yard strike to Shakim Phillips for the game-sealing first down, despite a Panther defender clinging tightly to his left leg.
"I knew we had to do something to ice the game and put it away," Whitmer said. "Shak did a good job running and his route and winning."
The win was by no means perfect. The offense continued to sputter in the second half, and the defense once again showed that it's not quite as comfortable playing with a big lead. Though they bottled up future NFL running back Ray Graham, limiting him to 41 yards on 15 carries, the Huskies allowed Tino Sunseri to throw for more than 300 yards and two second-half touchdowns.
Still, the team showed a level of pride and resiliency which they can be proud of. As senior defensive tackle Ryan Wirth noted, a lot of these seniors are playing competitive football for the last couple times, so motivation is not an issue for this team.
Uconn's first bye week came after losing by 30 to Syracuse on national television, so it'll be a much better mood the Huskies as they prepare during their week off for a showdown with undefeated Louisville.
This win will not save a season swept off course by the tides, but it is a liferaft in the middle of a heavy storm.
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