EAST HARTFORD, August 31 – Earlier this week, UConn senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs stopped by head coach Randy Edsall’s office. “Got a minute, coach?” he said.
The senior had started 21 games in his career in Connecticut but with an opening day contest against Holy Cross on the horizon, he was No. 2 on the depth chart behind David Pindell, the junior college transfer from Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania.
Head coach Randy Edsall recalled the moment. Shirreffs said to him, “Coach, I’m all in with everything we’re doing. I appreciate everything you’ve told me. It’s helped me.”
Shirreffs continued, “This team is important to me and all I want to win. Whatever the role is I have to play is what I will do.” Edsall concurred. “I told him I don’t know if you’ll get that opportunity this year to play quarterback but if you get that opportunity you have to be make sure you’re ready to go because you’re just one snap away (from playing).”
Shirreffs got his chance Thursday night against Holy Cross, entering the game with the Huskies trailing the upstart Crusaders by 13 points with 1:33 remaining in the third quarter. He promptly led the Huskies to a touchdown on a five-play, 53-yard drive that took just 1:18.
Connecticut scored 20 unanswered points in the final 16:33 of the game to beat Holy Cross, 27-20 Thursday night and win the season opening contest. Instead of a deflating defeat at the hands of an FCS member, the Huskies were all smiles after the game – the first game of Edsall’s second tenure as head coach.
Shirreffs completed 9-of-13 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. He led the Huskies to touchdowns on three of the first four drives he participated in.
“I am really proud of the guys for fighting back and getting the win,” Edsall said. “We had plenty of adversity and just seeing how they handled that and worked their way through it, I am proud of them.”
UConn had to overcome the loss to senior defensive lineman Foley Fatukasi early in the first quarter when he was ejected from the game for spearing Holy Cross QB Peter Pujals, who completed 20 of 32 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown to give the Crusaders a 20-7 halftime lead.
UConn’s first two drives of the third quarter – one that went to the Holy Cross six-yard line – came up empty, leading to Shirreffs’ return to the field.
“I just did what I was coached to do,” Shirreffs said. “In my mind, I was starting and I just prepared as if I was going to play the whole game. So, I was prepared.”
Shirreffs brought a bit of spark when he returned to the field. His second pass to Keyion Dixon was for 15 yards and a first down at the Holy Cross 38-yard line. He threw a seven-yard pass to Hergy Mayla (9-106) to the 31-yard line before Nate Hopkins rambled 28 yards to the three-yard line and scored on the next play with a three-yard run to cut the lead to 20-14 – energizing the crowd that had dwindled after halftime.
“People were making plays when I was in there and I’m grateful for that,” Shirreff’s said.
On UConn’s next possession, Shirreffs completed a 24-yard pass to Aaron McLean to the Holy Cross 35-yard line. On third down and seven from the 32, Shirreffs completed a 22-yard pass to Mayala for a first down. Three plays later, he hit Mayala with an 11-yard touchdown pass for a 21-20 lead with 12:02 remaining in the game.
With 8:27 remaining, the Huskies were still clinging to their one-point lead when they took over on the Holy Cross 47-yard line after junior linebacker Santana Sterling recovered a Crusader fumble that was created by teammate Tre Bell.
On second down, Shirreffs had his longest completion of the game, a 34-yard pass to Arkeel Newsome to the Crusader 13-yard line. It was really just a short little pass out of the backfield but the Ansonia senior got into open field for a big gain.
Hopkins, who ran for a game-high 130 yards on 21 carries, scored with 6:27 left in the game for a 27-20 lead.
Holy Cross did get to the UConn 19-yard line but the drive stalled there.
“This felt great,” Shirreffs said. “I got to see a lot of people smile and be happy. Anytime you win, it’s a great feeling. I’m tired of losing.”
The Huskies stumbled badly last season, losing their final six games, scoring just 16 points in the final four games when they were shutout twice. However, this year has begun with a victory.
UConn will have to play better next week (Saturday, Sept. 9) when they host South Florida at noon in East Hartford – a team picked to be a contender to win the American Athletic Conference title. The Huskies lost two fumbles (Pindell and Jordan Swann) in the second quarter that the Crusaders turned into 10 points.
UConn 27, Holy Cross 20
At East Hartford
Holy Cross (0-1) 3 17 0 0 — 20
UConn (1-0) 7 0 7 13 – 27
HC: A.J. Wells 25 FG, 3:32
C: Nate Hopkins 11 run (Mike Tarbutt kick), 0:10
HC: Blaise Bell 19 pass from Peter Pujals (Wells kick), 10:04
HC: Wells 20 FG, 4:39
HC: Diquan Walked 6 run (Wells kick), 3:35
C: Hopkins 3 run (Mike Tarbutt kick), 0:15
C: Hergy Mayala 11 pass from Bryant Shirreffs (Tarbutt kick), 12:02
C: Hopkins 1 run (Tarbutt kick), 6:27
RUSHING: Holy Cross – Domenic Cozier 4-42, Gabe Guild 5-32, Diquan Walker 5-16, Rich Denicola 1-5, Peter Pujals 6-0; UConn – Nate Hopkins 20-130, David Pindell 6-33, Arkeel Newsome 8-1, Bryant Shirreffs 1-minus 1, Jason Thompson 1-minus 1
PASSING: Holy Cross – Pujals 33-56-0, 358; UConn – Pindell 19-28-0, 154; Shirreffs 9-13-0, 124
RECEIVING: Holy Cross – Blaise Bell 10-129, Rich Denicola 10-87, Jordan Montgomery 7-59, Martin Dorsey 3-44, Derek Mountain 2-35, Miles Alexander 1-4; UConn – Hergy Mayala 9-106, Keyion Dixon 5-38, Tyraiq Beals 5-21, Aaron McLean 3-36, Arkeel Newsome 2-44, Quayon Skanes 2-13, Alec Bloom 1-18, Junior Joseph 1-2