— Sitting on a 17-point lead in the waning minutes of the third quarter, UConn was breezing toward a comfortable victory Saturday afternoon at Rentschler Field.
An emphatic win would set up UConn for its upcoming Big East Conference schedule and fill the team with some swagger before facing unbeaten Rutgers. Everything was lined up for the Huskies with just over one quarter remaining against Buffalo.
So why did the Huskies' defense need a last-minute stop to preserve a 24-17 victory?
"They fought their way back," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "Well-coached teams are going to do that."
From Buffalo's side, there was a successful trick play — a hook-and-lateral that resulted in a 50-yard touchdown run with 33 seconds left in the third quarter — and some stout defense that kept UConn's running game contained. From the UConn side, there was a desire to eat the clock and control the ball in the final quarter.
The result was a closer-than-expected ending before an announced crowd of 34,666.
"I think we just kind of got comfortable," running back Lyle McCombs said. "We did have a big score to go up 24-7, and we got kind of comfortable. We fought hard, but we got a little comfortable. We need to do a better job finishing games and putting the dagger in their heart and putting up one more score so they don't have any life and they don't have a chance."
The bottom line, of course, is that UConn ends its nonconference schedule at 3-2. After losing at Western Michigan, the Huskies played a turnover-free game and showed signs of a productive passing game.
Quarterback Chandler Whitmer was 15 of 22 for 227 yards and one touchdown. With the offensive line providing time to breathe in the pocket, Whitmer showed poise and accuracy as he distributed the ball to eight different receivers.
Whitmer drove the Huskies 57 yards in the first series, connecting twice with Nick Williams (four receptions, 57 yards) to set up a 29-yard field goal by Chad Christen. And after Buffalo responded with a 10-play scoring drive, Whitmer and UConn mounted perhaps the best drive of the season.
The 10-play, 92-yard drive gave the Huskies the lead they would never relinquish, but it was also an important momentum turner. Buffalo had taken the lead with a stunning series, as quarterback Alex Zordich completed passes of 16, 21 and 30 yards to set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Brandon Murie.
Bulls coach Jeff Quinn then showed some moxie by deploying an onside kick. Buffalo recovered and had the ball at the 50 with 6:10 left in the first quarter.
UConn's defense stopped the Bulls and forced a punt, and the Huskies took over at their 8. On third-and-12 at their 6, Whitmer completed an 18-yard pass to Shakim Phillips. He later hit Michael Smith for 14 yards and McCombs for 17 yards before a 36-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Griffin on the first play of the second quarter.
"It was a great drive; 92 yards is a long way to go," Whitmer said. "We did a good job of keeping the defense off balance and continuing to move the ball."
The lead swelled on the next possession as reserve running back Martin Hyppolite ran a sweep 50 yards for a touchdown. Hyppolite had four runs for five yards before that score and might have played himself into a role with his long run.
At 214 pounds, Hyppolite is a contrast to the 166-pound McCombs (97 yards on 29 carries).
"[Hyppolite] packs a little bit more lead in his pencil, so to speak," Pasqualoni said.
It was 17-7 at the half, and UConn seemingly put the game on ice when McCombs scored on a 2-yard run on fourth down with 5:03 left in the third. The seven-play drive included a 16-yard pass to John Delahunt and 12-yard completion to Smith.
"There is no way the defense can key in on one guy," Whitmer said, "because we can move to the next open receiver."
Trailing 24-7, Buffalo came alive because of a trick play. With 33 seconds left in the third and the ball on the UConn 49, Zordich threw a pass to Alex Neutz.
Neutz lateraled to Murie, who scampered 50 yards for the touchdown. UConn had opportunities to bring Murie down, but the junior — playing in place of injured starter Branden Oliver — broke or eluded tacklers.
In the fourth quarter, UConn's offense sputtered as three consecutive possessions ended in punts. Nine of 13 plays were runs during those drives, but the running game couldn't convert first downs.
Buffalo took over at its 10 with 5:09 left, and the Bulls moved 63 yards on seven plays, a drive highlighted by Zordich's 43-yard pass to Neutz. Patrick Clarke kicked a 44-yard field goal with 2:32 left and it was suddenly a 7-point game.
And the Huskies were still unable to control the clock, punting after gaining no yards in the finals two minutes. But the defense managed to contain Buffalo in the last possession, preserving the win.
"I think we were trying — trying hard," Pasqualoni said. "I don't think we let up, no. I think they were fighting hard and we were fighting hard."
Said linebacker Sio Moore: "They caught us with a couple of plays, but we were able to answer. That's the biggest thing when you play defense, being able to answer at tough times."
Next up is Rutgers, a nationally ranked team that won at Arkansas and will be coming off a bye week.
"For us right now it's about starting somewhere and keeping the momentum, keep pushing forward," Moore said. "We've been up and down, win one, lose one. Right now we want to keep on a mission to starting adding wins on top of wins."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun