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September 22, 2013

Tough Loss to Swallow

It was in a word, shocking. The UConn Huskies (0-3) just did not have enough magic to complete their storybook game, which came to a disappointing end as the No. 14 Michigan Wolverines (4-0) escaped for the second straight week with a victory of the narrowest of margins, winning 24-21.

"It hurts being so close against a Top 25 team," starting wide receiver Geremy Davis said. "I feel like everybody just gave it their all, and to come up short really is a bad feeling in our stomach."

It was especially bitter because of the way the game unfolded. UConn set the tempo early with an interception on Michigan's opening drive by redshirt freshman cornerback Jhavon Williams, who picked off a Devin Gardner pass after it was tipped by free safety Wilbert Lee. Both are backups, although Williams played a big role in the game after starting cornerback Taylor Mack went down with a shoulder injury.

After Michigan jumped out to an early 7-0 lead due to the Huskies' inability to get off the field on third-and-long, the Huskies failed to respond by going three-and-out on their next three possessions. The defense gave the offense and capacity crowd reason to cheer, however, with two momentum-building sacks of Gardner, the team's first sacks of the season.

The sacks, first by cornerback Byron Jones and then by defensive end Reuben Frank, were a huge statement for the defense as a whole as UConn's defensive line got pressure while the secondary played lockdown coverage.

"We knew defense was going to have to win this game. We take pride in that," starting middle linebacker and tri-captain Yawin Smallwood said.

The defense played outstanding all night but wore down as the game went on, eventually succumbing in the fourth quarter to the Wolverines' attack. The Huskies harassed Gardner by sacking him three times and intercepting him twice (courtesy Williams and Byron Jones). The defense also caused a huge fumble on 3rd-and-inches from Michigan's 34-yard line on the third play of the third quarter on a quarterback keeper by Gardner. Gardner ran into his own offensive line, which got stood up by the Huskies, and lost control of the ball. It squirted out to starting free-safety Ty-Meer Brown, who scooped up the gift and ran it all the way back for a touchdown. The score gave UConn a commanding 21-7 lead after their slow start.

The increased defensive pressure was something that UConn did not showcase in the first two games, and played a big role in causing four total fumbles, two of which were recovered.

"Coach opened the playbook up a little bit, sent us a little bit more than usual, but it's just the game scheme that we came in with today," Smallwood said.

The offense stepped up their play as well, and responded well to adversity in the form of a questionable call. After struggling for much of the first half, Whitmer connected on what looked like a beauty to Davis for a diving, over-the-shoulder 40-yard touchdown snag to tie the game at seven apiece. The call on the field, however, was reversed to be incomplete despite the fact that replays still appeared too close to overrule.

To UConn's credit, they marched right back onto the field and went to work. On the very next play Whitmer zipped an 18-yard completion to Davis, followed by a 12-yard run by Max DeLorenzo. After a dropped snap that set up 3rd-and-goal, Whitmer found backup tight end Spencer Parker for an 11-yard score bringing the raucous capacity crowd at Rentschler Field to their feet.

"We had to get that touchdown. We couldn't let them take that from us," McCombs said. "If you ask me, they robbed Geremy [Davis] of a touchdown."

UConn used a great backspin bounce off of a punt by Cole Wagner to strike again approximately a minute and a half later with 2:25 remaining in the half. The ball hit the heel of Michigan's Da'Mario Jones, and was recovered by starting strong safety Obi Melifonwu on Michigan's 9-yard line. Whitmer promptly threw another touchdown strike to McCombs to put UConn in the lead for the first time, 14-7.

Yet despite the forced turnovers and offensive production late in the first half, the numbers did not add up for UConn at the end. The Huskies only tallied 47 yards on the ground on 25 carries, and a total of 206 yards of total offense. Whitmer got picked off once, setting up the Wolverines' tying touchdown in the fourth quarter (21-21), and the defense wilted on Michigan's final drive of the game by giving up what would prove to be the game-winning, 21-yard field goal by Brendan Gibbons with 4:36 remaining in the contest.

A series of penalties doomed UConn's last-ditch drive, which stalled after Whitmer's 4th-and-29 pass to Deshon Foxx with 1:48 remaining was stopped about three yards short.

"I feel like we outplayed them throughout the whole game," Smallwood said. "I feel like they snuck away with this game, but I also got to give credit to Michigan, their coaches and their players. They capitalized off our mistakes and they came out with the win."

UConn lost the time of possession battle badly by over 10 minutes, something that is a direct effect of not being able to run the ball. That extra 10 minutes on the field could have worn down the Huskies' defense in the fourth quarter, which failed to contain Gardner and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint on a couple of crucial plays, especially after Whitmer's interception with the score still at 21-14, UConn.

"At that moment [after the interception] I said to myself, we've worked so hard on red zone defense, that we're not going to let them in and they're going to have kick a field goal and we'll get out of this, but we lost contain on the stretch play on the first play. Just out of position just a little bit," Pasqualoni said.

The Huskies may have put on an outstanding show on national television against a top-ranked team, but despite the effort, they were still unhappy with the zero in the win column to show for it.

"I feel like we have been improving each week, but you have to come to a point where that improvement turns into a win," Davis said.

"There are no moral victories. It's disappointing," Pasqualoni added. "It would have been great to win."

UConn will have to figure out how to improve their rushing attack, red zone defense, and all-around play before Saturday, when they travel on the road for the first time this season to play Buffalo at 3:30 p.m. (ESPN 3). It is UConn's first conference game, and a big opportunity to turn their season in the right direction.

"I can promise you this, that our preparation for Buffalo will not be any different than it was for Michigan," Pasqualoni said.

If that is the case there is hope for a turnaround to the Huskies' season.

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