LOGAN, Utah — That was fun to watch. It was entertaining. For a time Saturday, UConn football seemed to have an upset in the making. Trending on Twitter, the Huskies were.
For a time. That time began to run out when Nate Carter, running wild in the Utah State secondary and bidding to build on a two-touchdown lead, was stripped of the ball and lost it. The game turned dramatically on that play, less than a minute into the second quarter, which an experienced onlooker could have anticipated.
Importantly, it turned back later.
So the Huskies offered a spark, if they did not get a win in Jim Mora’s first game as coach, a win that would have lit a fire in the hearts of a long-suffering bunch of fans in Connecticut. Those hearts, instead, should ache over the loss of quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson and receiver Keelan Marion, likely for the season, with injuries sustained even as the Huskies were building their startling first-quarter lead.
But neither hearts nor spirits should be broken by this 31-20 loss on the road to a Utah State team that finished 2021 in the Top 25. Better days do seem to be coming, if maybe not tomorrow.
Carter gained 147 yards, surpassing his career high, in the first half and he finished with 20 carries for 190 yards. The Huskies, who averaged 265 total yards per game last year, had 234 by halftime Saturday. The Huskies weren’t embarrassed here, they moved the ball, looked like they belonged — especially before players started getting hurt.
“We’re disappointed,” Mora said, “but we’re not discouraged. I saw things today in the group that leads to encouragement. Disappointed. Bitter defeat. Nobody wants to lose. But I’m encouraged by the way they competed ‘til the end.”
We need to see more. But what we saw was not the dismal performance of years past, like last year’s 45-0 flop at Fresno State in the opener. There was a heartbeat, and early in the fourth quarter, the pulse was quickening again.
Let’s start with Carter, who gained 13 yards on UConn’s first play from scrimmage, and 52 on the second. The Huskies ended up scoring with a couple of big quarterback sneaks from Roberson, one to convert a 4th-and-1, one for a TD. UConn’s offensive line tore open holes and pushed the pile in ways not seen in years.
Roberson, the transfer from Penn State who won the starting job, got hurt on a keeper during the next possession, and Mora was forced to use Zion Turner, a true freshman from Florida with loads of potential. But he was not ready for the speed this game would throw at him and his first pass was intercepted.
After another big run by Carter, 44 yards, Turner did throw a TD pass to Marion, who landed on his shoulder and was done for the day. Mora was waiting for the tests, but indicated both were likely out for the year. Piled on top of the loss of receiver Cam Ross and three critical reasons to believe in the UConn offense are gone.
That was some eventful first quarter. And in the second quarter Carter had broken off another run, 19 yards, when Utah State’s Ajani Carter stripped the ball. Instead of maybe going up 17-0 or 21-0, the Huskies were back on their heels from there on. Utah State scored the next 24 points.
“We had a tough second quarter,” Mora said. “It didn’t feel right for a little bit, the energy on the sideline, but the players were able to self-correct, and I think that’s a really good step for us.”
This was, indeed, the point at which the players, at least the holdovers, could have slid back to the old mindset and caved in. Mora’s message at halftime was about that.
“There was a shift, we noticed it,” Carter said. “We addressed it. The way we came out, it was amazing how we handled that. We meet adversity and we have to make sure we keep our heads up high. Different mindset, completely different mindset. Coach Mora was very vocal about that, how we’re different. He continued to remind us, remember what we’ve been through, from the spring to the summer to fall camp.”
Here, the statement was made, the avalanche that seemed imminent in these mountainous surroundings was averted. If, at times, it felt like 2021, and looked like 2021, it was not 2021. UConn did not play like four-TD underdogs before Roberson and Marion got hurt, nor in the second half when the defense held and Hall-West Hartford’s Noe Ruelas booted two long field goals to make it a four-point game with 10:09 to play.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity already, so we weren’t really fazed,” said linebacker Jackson Mitchell, whose forced fumble and recovery was the defensive highlight of the first quarter. “There’s some good things we saw and things we can start building off. I know everybody’s going to be ready to go next week.”
There is much to be done, pieces to be picked up before the home opener against CCSU next week. Turner, who won three state titles at St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, has to be coached up to speed faster than anticipated. Carter resumed gaining yards in the second half, but the Huskies can’t subsist solely on that, they need a passing threat.
For the receiving corps, it’s next man up. And the defense showed some sure-handed tackling and toughness, compared to the last several years, limited big plays, and kept the Huskies in the game.
So Mora’s debut left a swirling of emotions around UConn football. There was excitement, fun, pride, yet also some of the old urge cluck the tongue over the program’s miserable luck and say, “here they go yet again.” But there, too, was every reason to feel better about the future. There was great in Nate Carter, and much more to love than lament. For Jim Mora’s Huskies, that’s an encouraging start.
“I said when I got here, this would be a program that fights to the bitter end,” Mora said, “a program that people would be proud of, that people respect. It’s tough to say, when we lose, that we took a step. But if you step back, like I’m trying to do, and look at it, I think we took a step.”
Dom Amore can be reached at [email protected]