The UConn Huskies submitted the newest members of the Football Bowl Subdivision to a bit of a rookie hazing with a 37-0 beatdown of the UMass Minutemen in the season opener Thursday night at Rentschler Field.
After forcing UMass into a three-and-out to open the game, the Huskies offense took possession at their own 25-yard line and promptly drove down the field in 12 plays for a touchdown.
Welcome to major college football. Now put on this dress and carry all the equipment off the field.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chandler Whitmer completed all three of his passes for 38 yards and senior wide receiver Nick Williams ran the ball twice for 23 yards on sweeps out of the Wildcat formation. He infused the team and the crowd with energy with his playmaking ability on offense and in special teams. As a runner, receiver, kick and punt returner, Williams racked up 143 all-purpose yards.
"Nick is really starting to come into his own as a slot receiver, as well," UConn Coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "Nick has always been a good returner...he's been productive as heck over his career."
The Huskies defense dominated, allowing just 59 total yards and three first downs to the overwhelmed UMass offense. The Minutemen didn't record their initial first down until less than a minute remained in the first half.
"We've got some guys that are pretty athletic on defense," Pasqualoni said.
The UConn front seven carved up the UMass offensive line like a butcher with a freshly sharpened cleaver, recording two sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood had a particularly impressive game, racking up seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack.
"I feel like now, this year, I'm called upon--that this is my defense," Smallwood said. "I've got to go out there, be responsible, make sure everybody gets their checks and make sure we go hard."
The secondary was equally impressive, breaking up six passes and generally shadowing the UMass wide receivers across the field. Senior cornerback Dwayne Gratz opened the game wide open with a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown to put UConn ahead 20-0 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half.
Gratz read the eyes of UMass quarterback Mike Wegzyn all the way, playing just far enough off the wide receiver to bait Wegzyn into throwing the ball. When Wegzyn did, Gratz exploded to the ball, sprinting down the UConn sideline for the score.
Though the final score may suggest a praiseworthy performance from the offense as well, the offense was very inconsistent. Whitmer looked great at times, demonstrating above-average footwork, both in the pocket and on the move.
On the other hand, Whitmer forced a number of throws into tight coverage, resulting in two interceptions that would make even Brett Favre cringe. Sophomore quarterback Scott McCummings also fumbled the ball at the UMass 5-yard line on UConn's first offensive possession of the second half.
I'm a little bit disappointed that we had the ball to start the second half, got the ball down there, and turned it over," Pasqualoni said. "Three turnovers is not acceptable."
Whitmer's first interception may have been the play of game. After rolling out to his left on a third down in UMass territory, and finding nobody open, Whitmer tried to throw the ball away. He didn't put enough velocity on the ball, however, and UMass safety Darren Thellen leapt over the sideline, tapping the ball back into play--directly to teammate Tom Brandt-- before landing out of bounds.
On Whitmer's second interception, he tried to fit the ball through three defenders to tight end Ryan Griffin. Despite some examples of poor decision-making, Whitmer completed 15 of his 25 passes for 219 yards.
"It was my first start as a D-I quarterback," Whitmer said, "but I just tried to stay comfortable, play within myself and stay calm."
Like any early-season game against inferior competition, this game will serve as a teaching tool, a building block for the Huskies to grow from. With North Carolina State, a team ranked just outside the top 25 in both the AP Poll and the Coaches' Poll, visiting Rentschler Field next week, the Huskies will have to learn from the mistakes of this game.
If UConn can limit the turnovers and open a few running lanes for the dynamic Lyle McCombs (who was held to just 82 yards on 23 carries), the Wolfpack could be in for a dogfight next Saturday.
At wide receiver, Geremy Davis made the surprise start over Shakim Phillips and took advantage of the opportunity, leading the team with five receptions for 79 yards. Davis used his size and strength to create separation from the Minutemen defensive backs, culminating in two fantastic catches.