EAST HARTFORD – Just how good is the University of Connecticut football team? For nearly three quarters, they were good enough. The Huskies led No. 15 Michigan by two touchdowns Saturday night in front of the largest crowd to see the Huskies at Rentschler Field.
“We always believe we can play with anyone in the country and we proved it to everybody in the country,” UConn safety Obi Melifonwu said. “Everyone thought we were going to get blown out and that we couldn’t hang with them.”
Yes, it was a much better effort than the previous two games – a dispiriting loss to Towson University and a defeat to Maryland. “We fed off the crowd’s energy and it was amazing,” Melifonwu said. “It was a time I’ll never forget – a game I’ll never forget.”
It’s a game that will probably live longer in the memory of Connecticut fans than Michigan fans. To the undefeated Wolverines, it was another close game – but it was a win. Michigan rallied from a 14-point, third quarter deficit to beat the Huskies, 24-21 in front of 42,704 fans at sold out Rentschler Field. A week earlier, Michigan needed a goal line stand to hold off an upset bid from Akron.
“I thought defensively, we played awfully hard and productively. We did a nice job,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “Offensively, obviously, we can’t give the ball away. We’ve got a major league problem and we’ve got to fix it because that’s not going to win championships.”
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner turned the ball over three times and the Wolverines also muffed a punt inside their 10 that led to a UConn touchdown.
“I am very proud of the entire team’s effort tonight,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. “They (Michigan) made a couple more plays and first down then we did. We contained them for a long time but not long enough. This effort gives us something to look forward as we prepare for our next game.”
Whitmer threw two touchdown passes and safety Ty-Meer Brown returned a Michigan fumble 34 yards for a touchdown with 13:39 left in the third quarter to give the Huskies a 21-7 lead.
After UConn linebacker Yarwin Smallwood stopped Gardner short on a fourth-and-two at the UConn 22-yard line with 11:23 left in the fourth quarter, the Huskies led 21-14 and the record crowd at Rentschler Field was rocking and starting to believe an upset was in the making.
But Michigan linebacker Desmond Morgan made the play of the game, leaping high and snaring Whitmer’s pass over the middle with his right hand. His one-handed interception swung the game Michigan’s way.
“It was just a simple zone coverage,” Morgan said. “I just dropped back and did what I was coached to do, kind of read off his eyes and lo and behold he threw it that way so I was just trying to jump up and make the play on it. Once I got the ball in my hands I was just trying to follow the blockers.”
Morgan returned it 29 yards to the 12. “That’s going to be replayed a long time in Michigan history,” Gardner said of Morgan’s interception. On the next play Toussaint swept untouched around the left side to make it 21-21 with 9:49 left.
Michigan forced a three-and-out on the next series and got the ball back around midfield, but its drive stalled at the UConn four-yard line. Gibbons made the short kick to give Michigan a three-point lead with 4:36 left. UConn’s last drive reached midfield, but Michigan pushed the Huskies backward and they came up a 3 yards short on a fourth-and-29.
“All the effort that was put into it from the university, to the fans to everyone who had a part of tonight’s game showed everyone who was watching that this was true, big-time college football,” Pasqualoni said. “Would have been great to win.”
Once again, the lack of a running game hurt the Huskies. Whitmer was able to complete 16-of-32 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns. But he threw a pair of interceptions and was sacked four times for 31 yards. For the second straight game, UConn was held under 50 yards rushing on the ground – gaining 47 yards on 25 carries.
Michigan had three turnovers in the first half and that helped give UConn a 14-7 lead. Turnover No. 4 came on its first possession of the second half. Gardner tried to sneak on a third-and-short, but as he slid down the line, he bumped into one of his linemen and the ball popped loose. Brown picked up the ball and had a couple of teammates escorted him into the end zone for a 21-7 UConn lead.
Michigan finally responded with a drive, going 75 yards, the final 35 by Fitzgerald Toussaint, who made it 21-14 with 5:37 left in the third. Toussaint finished with 120 yards and 2 TDs for the Wolverines.
Gardner threw a first-quarter interception deep in UConn territory. He redeemed himself with a 17-yard touchdown run to give Michigan a 7-0 lead with 1:52 left in the first.
UConn ended the first quarter with one first down. But Michigan couldn’t take advantage and Whitmer threw two TD passes in the second quarter to put UConn up 14-7 at half. Whitmer completed an 11-yard pass to former walk-on Spencer Parker from Newington to tie the game at 7-7 with 3:54 left in the second quarter. He added another on a 7-yard pass to Lyle McCombs with 1:47 left after the Huskies took over deep in Michigan territory thanks to a turnover on a punt.
Gardner didn’t complete a pass in the second quarter and for the second straight week Michigan looked disjointed against an unranked opponent.
UConn returns to action next Saturday when it travels to Buffalo for a 3:30 p.m. game on ESPN3.
Material from Connecticut’s athletic communications team used to help compile this report.
Michigan 24, UConn 21
At East Hartford
Michigan (4-0) 7 0 7 10 – 24
UConn (0-3) 0 14 7 0 — 21
M: Devin Gardner 17 run (Brendan Gibbons kick), 1:56
C: Spencer Parker 11 pass from Chandler Whitmer (Chad Christen kick), 3:54
C: Lyle McCombs 7 pass from Whitmer (Christen kick), 1:47
C: Ty-Meer Brown 34 fumble recovery (Christen kick), 13:39
M: Fitzgerald Toussaint 35 run (Gibbons kick), 5:37
M: Toussaint 12 run (Gibbons kick), 9:49
M: Gibbons 21 FG, 4:36