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November 24, 2013

Huskies Win First

They say the best players step up in the biggest moments. With his team desperately searching for a win and the game tied 21-21 with around 4:30 left in the game against Temple, UConn linebacker and tri-captain Yawin Smallwood made the defining play of the night.

On 3rd-and-5 at the UConn-44, Temple's P.J. Walker dropped back to pass and as he released the ball, Smallwood jumped the route and went 59 yards for a pick six to give UConn (1-9, 1-5) a 28-21 lead over Temple (1-10, 0-7).

"I was just going through my defensive progressions. I was reading the quarterback's eyes; he was locked on the receiver, [so] I just went out there and made the play that I'm supposed to make," Smallwood said.

Smallwood and the Huskies' defense would be called upon one more time to seal the team's first win whenWalker was again driving the Owls' offense for a potential game-tying score. Facing a 2nd-and-7 with the ball on UConn's 32-yard line and the clock ticking near a minute to play, Walker dropped back in the pocket. The shifty quarterback had mostly avoided pressure from UConn, but a charging Smallwood was not to be denied. The Butkus Award semifinalist tracked down Walker and brought him down for a 13-yard loss back at the 45-yard line. The play made it 3rd-and-20 for the Owls, and two plays later the game was over.

"He's our team captain. He's one of our best players. He should make those plays. That's what he's doing," UConn interim head coach T.J. Weist said. "We needed our best players to step up and make plays."

For the Huskies, it was a tale of two halves and an all-too familiar script. Turnovers and an inability to sustain drives on offense proved to be UConn's undoing in the first half, as they gave up 21 unanswered points.

Casey Cochran looked shaky on UConn's first drive, throwing an underwhelming deep ball to Shakim Phillips (who had two steps on his man), and nearly tossing a pick on a ball that was overthrown to Deshon Foxx. On UConn's next drive, Cochran again underthrew his intended target for an easy interception by Abdul Smith at UConn's 23-yard line.

"The first half we beat ourselves," Weist said. "We threw the interception [and] we didn't make plays. Really, honestly the first half was probably how we've played the whole season."

UConn followed that interception with an ugly three-and-out, allowing Walker to go back to work. The true freshman's combination of speed, shifty scrambling moves and accuracy through the air were too much for UConn's defense to handle. The Huskies' secondary got beat consistently on short, chunk passes for anywhere from five to 10 yards. When they did have a play on the ball, the defense as a whole missed too many tackles.

The first-half mistakes continued to pile up for UConn, as a bad snap on a punt went through the legs of Cole Wagner for the second time in three games. The miscue led to a negative nine-yard punt that gave the Owls possession on UConn's 18-yard line. Temple took advantage of the miscue by scoring on the very next play, as Zaire Williams ran through the heart of the Huskies' defense untouched for a touchdown.

The woes on special teams continued on the team's following drive when UConn's next punt was nearly blocked. Wagner barely got off a wobbly 27-yarder, again giving Temple good field position.

UConn's defense kept their team in the game, however. Smallwood put pressure on Walker, forcing a fumble that defensive end Tim Willman recovered on Temple's 42-yard line.

By the end of the first half, UConn found themselves in a 21-0 deficit, mostly of their own doing. They nearly gave up another score, but their defensive stiffened just enough thanks to a trifecta by Willman. Willman recorded a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery with nine seconds left and the Owls threatening on UConn's 15-yard line. The play may have seemed inconsequential at the time, but keeping Temple off the board proved crucial by the end.

"That was probably the best plays of the game was when we stopped them right before halftime. That gave us some momentum," Weist said.

That play kept it a three-score game at the time, but did not erase the team's horrid start. In the first half, Temple dominated UConn in nearly every offensive category, including 17 to four first downs, 271 total yards of offense to 64, 17:32 time of possession compared to 12:28, and 5-of-8 on third down conversions to UConn's 0-of-7 showing. While Temple scored on three out of their five red zone chances, UConn failed to even enter the red zone a single time.

For as bad as UConn played in the first half, they came out with nothing to lose in the third quarter. Cochran looked like a new quarterback, guiding the offense on a six play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by a 33-yard ball on the money to a streaking Geremy Davis to make it 21-7. Weist returned to the ground game, letting Lyle McCombs, Max DeLorenzo and Martin Hyppolite run wild for 42 combined yards on the drive.

Geremy Davis might not have had many catches (four for 83 yards), but each time he touched the ball it seemed to be on a clutch play. Davis not only snagged the Huskies' first touchdown, but also converted on a key 4th-and-6 grab for 16 yards to put UConn on Temple's 9-yard line. Three plays later, DeLorenzo scored on a four-yard plunge to bring UConn within one touchdown, 21-14, to end the third quarter.

Temple had some problems with their punting game too, keeping the Huskies in it. Paul Layton bobbled a snap early in the fourth, resulting in a 20-yard punt that gave UConn the ball at the 50-yard line with 14:16 remaining. It would prove to be the break that the Huskies needed.

Behind the powerful running of DeLorenzo and quick bursts from McCombs, UConn finally took advantage of an opponent's mistake and used a 14-play, 50-yard drive to tie the game at 21 apiece.

For a moment, it appeared that the Temple defensive wall would hold at their 1-yard line. UConn had taken the ball five times on or within the Owls' 1-yard line, and five times they had been stopped short. Facing a fourth-and-one with seven minutes left in the game and down 21-14, Cochran called his own number, faking a handoff to DeLorenzo and scampering untouched into the end zone to knot it up at 21 apiece.

"Not many words can explain that drive, especially at the end. Seven plays [from within the 5-yard line] and we're all freaking out, like we need to get the ball in the end zone," Cochran said. "I had to read the end there and he crashed down on Max hard, and I just pulled it and walked in. I couldn't even believe I was in the end zone."

The offense's 21 unanswered points would set up Smallwood's heroics, giving UConn its highest scoring output of the season in their 28-21 victory. The Huskies are winless no longer.

"These guys made a decision they were going to win this game. That's what it came down to. The heart and soul of this team really showed because we came back," Weist said. "It didn't just happen. We had to make it happen, so that's why I'm so proud of them."

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