EAST HARTFORD —If they played like this every game, they wouldn't be 0-3. If they played like this every game, Paul Pasqualoni wouldn't be 10-17 since taking over in 2011 and his job wouldn't be hanging by a thread or two.
If the Rentschler Field fans were into every game like this one, there wouldn't be eyes rolling when UConn is introduced into the national football conversation. If the atmosphere was like this every game, the Rent could stand with any stadium in the country.
The biggest home game in UConn history was there for the taking and it sure looked like UConn was going to take it. The Huskies had a two-touchdown lead on No. 15 Michigan in the second half. The crowd of 42,704, the largest in Rentschler history, was whipped into a Saturday night frenzy.
There were great plays and greater stories being painted all over the Rent. And UConn was going to apply the final brush strokes.
Derek Jeter, immortal Yankee, famed Michigan fan, got booed when they showed him on the videoboard sitting in a luxury box. There were no favorites on this night, not if they were not pulling for the home team. The Huskies, booed in losing their opening two games at home, were being cheered wildly.
"Just a great night for football," Pasqualoni said after UConn fell 24-21 to the Wolverines. "It was a tremendous atmosphere. The crowd was just unbelievable. It was big-time college football."
Yes, it was a big night for UConn football. It was a big night, too, for UConn athletics, which has been kicked around the past few years in conference realignments. The Huskies were playing to the moment. UConn has exactly two wins over ranked teams in its history, but this one would have been incredible, something to put up on the mantel piece and admire for decades to come.
Heck, Michigan playing here was amazing enough.
But beat Michigan?
It was going to happen.
And then it didn't.
When Fitz Toussaint took a pitch from Devin Gardner and zig-zagged 35 yards to pull withing a touchdown, matters got tense. When Desmond Morgan made a terrific one-handed stab to intercept a Chandler Whitmer pass to set up Toussaint's second touchdown it was tied at 21.
"It was disappointing the tailback got out on the stretch play that one play," Pasqualoni said. "We contained it for a long time, but we lost contain on that one. Out of position by just a little bit.
"We were a great defense last year, but our Achilles' heel was the red zone. We thought it could come down to a short-yardage, red-zone deal."
Let's stop right there. Pasqualoni clearly was deflecting attention from what put UConn in that awful spot. Whitmer's interception was huge. Huge. Yes, Morgan made a great athletic play on the interception to return it 29 yards to the UConn 12. But the mistake was costly. Whitmer's interception that was returned for a touchdown by Maryland was a back-breaker, too. Make no mistake. Desmond Morgan's pick was the turning point.
"The kid made a great play," Whitmer said. "We got verticals to Geremy [Davis]. You know, I think when I snapped over there he did a great job of redirecting. I tried to hold him in the middle for four steps and snap over there to that place and he grabbed it one hand and brought it down. It's tough, I mean we had the momentum and it felt good but the kid made a play."
Suddenly, the wheels fell off one of the great stories in UConn football history. A punt return, a 36-yard grinding drive, Gibbons kicked the field goal. Whitmer made a desperation pass to Deshon Foxx for 26 yards, but it was fourth-and-29 after he was sacked for the fourth time and a false-start penalty. It was all over. UConn came up three yards and three points short.
Great night of football.
How do yo explain walk-on tight end Spencer Parker of Newington pulling in an 11-yard touchdown catch only moments after a terrific diving catch by Davis was overturned by replay?
How do you explain a punt hitting the back of Da'Mario Jones' foot and Obi Melifonwu recovering the ball on the Michigan 9 to lead to UConn's go-ahead touchdown?
How do you fully explain Brian Lemelle fumbling a Michigan punt in the closing seconds of the first half only to have Jhavon Williams, who seemed to be everywhere, doing everything, jumping on the ball to bail out Lemelle and his team?
How do you fully explain Gardner fumbling on a quarterback keeper on third-and-1 and Ty-Meer Brown scooping up the ball and racing 34 yards to give UConn a 21-7 lead only 81 seconds into the third quarter?
Great games need great stories like Spencer Parker.
Big games mean players must emerge in a big way. Redshirt freshman cornerback Williams, who played in nickel packages replayed injured Taylor Mack early in the game, picked off a pass, made a great save on a fumbled punt and was all over the place. Williams, a Florida kid, wears No. 6, the same number of another Florida kid named Jasper Howard. The Huskies had to play without Shakim Phillips, Kevin Friend and Graham Stewart. They had their share of adversity to overcome.
The defense, so porous in the first two games, played with enormous passion from the start. The problem was that the game was starting to look like so many last year when the defense played start, resolute, only to have the offense do far too little.
The Huskies had been the only team in the nation without a sack. That's right 122 teams had at least one sack. The Huskies had none against Towson and Maryland. Well, they got after Gardner. They sacked him three times.
Whitmer had one early pass of 19 yards to Sean McQuillan, but 16 of the first 17 offensive plays only went for 20 more. Yet there was the Huskies offense gaining 89 yard on the next 17 to close out the half. Parker's touchdown catch capped an eight-play, 56-yard drive to tie the game.
Parker transferred to UConn from Lasell [Mass.] College where he played volleyball and was a first-team, all-conference pick in 2010. Parker was the 2009 All-Courant volleyball player of the year from Newington. In 2011, he didn't see any action with the Huskies as a walk-on. He earned a letter last year, appearing in eight games with three tackles.
Suddenly, Spencer Parker is there hauling in a touchdown pass on national television. Suddenly Sean McDonough is calling out his name on ABC. Granted a halftime would separate it, but that touchdown would mark one of the most thrilling four minutes, 42 seconds in UConn football history. Suddenly anything seemed possible again, just like it did in the formative years of the program under Randy Edsall.
Two plays after Obi jumped on the fumble, Whitmer found Lyle McCombs out of the backfield for a 7-yard touchdown pass. And only 81 seconds into the third Brown picked up a fumble to make it 21-7.
Ray Allen was here. Kemba Walker was here. A number of former UConn players were here. The 2013 UConn women's hoop team showed up dancing on the field at halftime and Geno Auriemma exhorted the crowd, telling the fans how much they meant to the success of teams.
Could the Huskies really pull this off?
They could not. They did not.
"We'll be a better team for what we went through tonight," Pasqualoni said.
They better be. They have to be.
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