EAST HARTFORD- UConn athletic director Warde Manuel stood, arms crossed, in the back of the interview room next to the local news cameras as football coach Paul Pasqualoni fielded questions from reporters.
The questions varied but, for the most part, they all hinted at the disappointments of the past two seasons. Though it wasn't unusual for Manuel to join the press conference, his presence seemed to hold more meaning in the wake of a season-ending 34-17 loss to Cincinnati Saturday evening at Rentschler Field.
It wasn't as if Pasqualoni was on the hot seat but, after failing to become bowl eligible in his first two seasons, he knew he'd have to answer for the mistakes that have plagued the UConn football program since his arrival.
Minutes later, junior quarterback Chandler Whitmer slumped into the room and plopped down on a wooden chair set up for player interviews. With his eyelids drooping, Whitmer looked like a beaten prizefighter ready to throw in the towel.
For the second consecutive week, Whitmer was knocked out of the game prematurely by a blow to the head. After suffering a concussion in UConn's triple-overtime victory against Louisville last week, Whitmer returned to action Saturday, but he wasn't very crisp with his throws.
Whitmer threw for 264 yards, but he completed just 16 of his 31 passes, threw an interception and was sacked four times. The last sack, which knocked Whitmer out of the game, came on an ill-advised trick play, perhap inspired by Bearcats tight end Travis Kelce's 39-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Brendan Kay.
On first-and-10, midway through the third quarter, UConn came out in the Wildcat with sophomore Scott McCummings at quarterback and Whitmer lined up on the outside. Since Whitmer hasn't lined up at wide receiver all season, the Cincinnati defense prepared for a trick play and did not bite on the fake when McCummings lateraled to Whitmer.
With no receiver to throw to, Whitmer tried to throw the ball out of bounds, but was cited for an intentional grounding as his head whipped back and struck the turf. Whitmer stood up, but his legs immediately wobbled and teammates had to hold him up until the athletic trainer made it out onto the field.
Senior walk-on Johnny McEntee took his place and led the Huskies into the end zone to bring UConn within four, 21-17, but it was as close as the home team would get. McEntee's magic wore out and he threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter to ensure the Huskies would not go bowling for the second season in a row.
As has been the case all season, the offensive line was outplayed by their opponent's front seven. UConn carried 29 times for 36 yards. Without even the threat of a rushing attack, the Cincinnati defense honed in on Whitmer and brought the pressure. As has been the case all season, Whitmer stood tall and took the punishment.
"It's been pretty tough, but that's football," Whitmer said. "I play the game because I enjoy it and, you know, standing in there and completing balls when you get hit, that's one of the best feelings around."
Though the numbers may not support it (especially the 15 interceptions), Whitmer showcased a great deal of talent and moxie this season. Unfortunately, he was a first-year starter tasked with carrying an entire offense, with an offensive line and a running back (Lyle McCombs) that didn't exactly excel in pass protection.
And the poor defense. A veteran crew led by six seniors who specialized in smart, physical, disciplined defense all season long. It was virtually impossible to run the ball against the Huskies this season, but that wasn't enough given the troubles on offense.
UConn's defense needed to force turnovers and score points to win games, but the big plays always seemed to slip through their grasp. Sio Moore dropped a sure interception in the second quarter, too common an occurrence on a defense carrying such a heavy burden.
It's said that good teams find ways to win football games; this season, the Huskies found ways to lose games. The details were often different, but the theme was the same: the offense couldn't find consistency and the defense couldn't bail them out.
Over the course of the season, Pasqualoni has stressed the importance of the little things, that the little things add up and decide the outcome of games. That certainly holds true, but, this season, led by an admirable group of 16 seniors, the Huskies did a lot of the little things. Instead, it was big things--an inability to run block and unwillingness for creative play-calling--that led to such disappointment.