EAST HARTFORD – They were optimistic. They were upbeat. They were strong. They were ready to put a pair of 5-7 seasons behind them. And what did the University of Connecticut football team do on opening night? They were run over.
Not only did the Huskies lose their season opening contest for just the second time in 11 years, they lost to a team from the Football Championship Series (formerly known as Division I-AA).Towson University is no slouch. They entered the game ranked No. 11 in the country in the latest FCS poll.
Still, Connecticut has aspirations of playing in a bowl game. In two weeks, they play Maryland and a week later, they face Michigan, a team ranked in the top 25 in the nation in the preseason polls. Thursday night’s 33-18 loss to Towson at Rentschler Field is like taking a bucket of frigid, ice-filled water to the face. It knocks you off your feet.
The visiting Tigers controlled the game by rushing for 201 yards on 50 yards. With a career-high 36 carries, Terrence West ran for 156 yards and two touchdowns, including one TD with a strong second effort with 16 seconds left in the game. Towson controlled the game and had the ball for over 36 minutes. The Tigers were 7-of-16 on third down and 2-of-3 converting on fourth down.
“It’s disappointing. One of the strengths of our team over the past couple seasons has been our run defense, and West by himself had 156 yards, so that was very disappointing,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. “We didn’t play well there and I don’t know of an area that we did play well in.”
Meanwhile, UConn converted only four times on 13 third down possessions and ran for just 81 yards on 27 carries. Husky QB Chandler Whitmer showed the ability to throw the ball, completing 16 of 28 passes for 202 yards and two long TD passes.
But the UConn offensive line couldn’t keep him off the ground. Whitmer was sacked five times for a loss of 23 yards. Three times, he was sacked with Towson rushing just three men.
“It was just very disappointing for the amount of work and effort these kids have put in,” Pasqualoni said. “We’ll evaluate the film and make some decisions about what we’re doing. We’ll move on and start again on Saturday.”
As it did a year ago, crucial mistakes doomed the Huskies.
With the game tied at 7-7 in the second quarter, Whitmer had a pass batted up into the air and intercepted by Towson’s Jon Desir at the UConn 29-yard line. Two plays later, the Tigers were in the end zone.Sterling Phifer ran 24 yards to the five and on the next play, he got outside and scored to give Towson a 13-7 lead.
Whitmer drove the Huskies back down the field immediately, connecting twice on two nice passing plays to Geremy Davis (5 receptions, 100 yards). On third down and 1 at the 24-yard line, UConn back Lyle McCombs broke through the Tiger defense and powered his way to the three-yard line.
Two plays later, UConn was facing third down and 1 at its own one-yard line. And the Huskies were penalized five yards for having 12 men in the huddle. On third down, Whitmer overthrow Deshon Foxx at the two and the Huskies settled for a field goal and trailed 13-10.
In the third quarter, Towson marched 95 yards on 13 plays to take control of this game. On the drive, they successfully converted on third down three times. The third time was on an incomplete pass by Towson QB Peter Athens but the Huskies were flagged for pass interference. Two plays later, Athens scored for a 19-10 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Towson converted on a third-and-8 play with a 45-yard pass to Brian Dowling and West scored on a fourth down and 1 play from the six with 5:14 left to give the Tigers a 26-10 lead.
UConn cut the lead to eight when Whitmer completed a 21-yard pass to Phillips with 3:29 left. Spencer Parker caught a two-point conversion pass from Whitmer. The Huskies forced Towson to punt with 3:04 left but on the punt, UConn freshman punt returner Brian Lemelle coughed up the ball when the ball went through his hands with 2:56 remaining.
Pasqualoni took the blame for that mistake. “I put him in there and was the one that made him the punt returner, which is a tough job for a freshman,” the coach said. “That’s not on Brian Lemelle, that’s on me. I know he’s going to be a very good player. He can catch punts, but it was a tough fumble for him at that point in the game.”
“It’s devastating but we have to come back next week and prepare for the game, “ UConn safety Obi Melifonwu said. “Everyone gave a great effort on both offense and defense. Everyone battled and no one had their heads down.
NOTES: This is Towson’s first win over a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) team in seven tries. … It was UConn’s first loss to a FCS team since 2001. … Towson controlled the ball for 21:08 in the second half compared to just 8:50 for the Huskies. … Windsor High graduate Ryan DeLaire had two tackles for losses (11 yards) and 1.5 sacks for 11 yards for the Tigers. … UConn is now 9-2 in season home openers at Rentschler Field. … Connecticut redshirt freshman safety Obi Melifonwu recorded the first interception of his collegiate career in the first quarter. … WR Shakim Phillips hauled in his longest career catch on 31-yard touchdown pass from Whitmer towards the end of the first quarter. It was his second touchdown as a Husky.
Towson 33, Connecticut 18
At East Hartford
Towson (1-0) 7 6 6 14 – 33
Connecticut (0-1) 7 3 0 8 – 18
C: Shakim Phillips 31 pass from Chandler Whitmer (Chad Christsen kick), 4:44
T: Sterling Phifer 23 pass from Peter Athens (D.J. Soven kick), 2:51
T: Phifer 5 run (kick fails), 7:04
C: Christen 22 FG, 1:48
T: Athens 1 run (kick fails), 5:09
T: Terrance West 6 run (D. Evangelista kick), 5:14
C: Phillips 21 pass from Whitmer (Spencer Parker pass from Whitmer), 3:39
T: West 5 run (Evangelista kick), 0:16
RUSHING: Towson – Terrance West 36-156, Sterlin Phifer 8-39; UConn: Lyle McComb 17-76, Deshon Foxx 1-12, Whitmer 9-minus 7
PASSING: Towson – Peter Athens 13-20-1, 192 yards, 1 TD; UConn – Chandler Whitmer 16-28-1, 202 yards, 2 TDs
RECEIVING: Towson – Leon Kinnard 4-61, Spencer Wilkins 5-55, Brian Dowling 1-45; UConn – Geremy Davis 5-100, Shakim Phillips 5-77, Lyle McCombs 5-18, Max DeLorenzo 1-11