STORRS, Conn. – Bryant Shirreffs was mad. If this had been a November night at Connecticut’s Rentschler Field, with a cold wind swirling from goal line to sideline, there might have been a visible cloud of steam pouring out from under the quarterback’s helmet.
Shirreffs had no desire to gaze at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter last Thursday night, only to see the Huskies trailing Maine. Yet, that was the situation facing UConn after Shirreffs had been strip-sacked by Najee Goode, who then scampered away for a 74-yard touchdown romp.
“Initially, I couldn’t repeat what I was thinking because it would be pretty vulgar,” Shirreffs said. “That’s unfortunate. I knew we were going to win the game. It was just a matter of how we won the game.”
UConn, which hits the road to play Navy in an American Athletic Conference game Saturday, did win. The Huskies overcame that 21-14 deficit against Maine by scoring 10 points in the final 6:36, winning on Bobby Puyol’s 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.
Playing with high expectations and hoping to unveil a more prolific offense, the impact of that sack-strip and score felt more like a meteor shower striking The Rent. It felt so negative that Shirreffs didn’t garner much credit for the two drives he engineered to get the Huskies over the hump.
UConn picked up 54 yards on just six plays to tie the score on Arkeel Newsome’s 2-yard touchdown run. Puyol’s game winning kick was the result of a 10-play, 50-yard victory march highlighted by a perfect 18-yard completion to Brian Lemelle.
“You hate to be in two-minute situations when you don’t have to be,” Shirreffs said. “But it’s something I love to do so I’m glad we got that experience. We’re probably going to need it sometime this season. Now we’ve already been through it once.
“I think we made some people’s blood pressure rise a little bit but it’s good we got that experience to go into two-minute [offense] and excel.”
Everyone on the UConn side – fans included – could do without the drama this week against Navy. They also know playing Navy in Annapolis is close to an impossible task. The Midshipmen have won 11 consecutive games at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
The Huskies did what they needed to do against Maine, but the realization in victory is that UConn must score more. There’s no better time to start than Saturday, when 24 points likely won’t be enough against Navy.
“Where we definitely made great improvement was in our mantra of finishing successfully,” coach Bob Diaco said. “Down the stretch, to execute a stop, block a field goal, have a two-minute drive, kick the game-winner, come back out and execute a snap, and win the game was great improvement.
“It was very exciting. At the same time, it didn’t need to be that interesting.”
The Midshipmen lost starting quarterback Tago Smith to an ACL injury but still beat Fordham, 52-16. Navy ranks 19th in the nation in scoring offense and UConn is 71st. At times the Huskies were their own worst enemy on offense. In the end, Diaco was happy to win and still have a lot to work on.
“We want to connect on more explosive plays on offense and do a better job of limiting chunks on defense,” Diaco said.
Shirreffs picked up the biggest chunks of yardage for UConn. He passed for 162 yards, completing 16 of his 23 tosses. He also gained 95 yards on 20 carries. His biggest gain was 35 yards, 11 more than his longest pass completion. Despite gaining so much with his legs, the Huskies don’t want him scrambling as much as he did.
“I didn’t expect that, no,” Shirreffs said. “I would like not to do that, but it just happened. Some of the plays, I wish I could take back. Some, I was happy I was able to make the plays.”
Diaco pointed out that Maine presented an unusual challenge by “storming the castle” and constantly rushing seven or eight players. UConn’s offensive line was criticized after the game, but teammates defended the group, especially given the circumstances of such a rush.
“It’s always challenging to see something like that,” offensive tackle Andreas Knappe said. “It’s a lot of fun too. It’s like solving a puzzle.”
Diaco doesn’t want his quarterback exposed so often. While Shirreffs gained yardage, he did a lot of sliding and got bounced around a lot. He took one hit trying to reach the end zone that knocked his helmet off and forced him to sit out a play.
“I felt like you can look back and look at plays where he could have slid or thrown the ball to very open players downfield,” Diaco said. “There is definitely concern in over-coaching a player and eliminating some of those great, intangible elements of his ability. It was the difference in the game in some aspects.
“We want to emphasize some of the throws he made and some of the throws he missed without taking away some of the great plays he made. He created extended plays, created some opportunities and extended drives with his legs and we don’t want that to change.”
The message that might have been missed as UConn rallied to win is Shirreffs’ competitive nature. After a lot of adversity in the game, he found a way to lead the comeback and produce a win.
That’s a direct result of his leadership, something that gives the rest of the offense its cue in the final minutes.
“We’re built to never quit, so we never did,” Knappe said. “Football changes fast. That’s also one of the reasons it’s such a great sport. You just keep grinding and good things will happen.”
The Huskies hope good things will happen on Saturday in Annapolis.