Halloween was celebrated on Friday night in many municipalities throughout Connecticut thanks to an earlier visit from Super Storm Sally, who+ played tricks throughout the region over the traditional spookday. So, the University of Connecticut Huskies waited until “Halloween II” to get their treats as the Huskies built a 24-0 lead at halftime, then held off a furious fourth-period Pittsburgh comeback to defeat the Panthers, 24-17, before 33,503 fans at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, and a national television audience on ESPN2.
Tailback Lyle McCombs led the Huskies' ground attack with 220 rushing yards—including one of UConn's three first-half touchdowns. Starting quarterback Chandler Whitmer threw for 213 yards and one TD for the Huskies, who improved to 4-6 overall and earned their first Big East victory of the season.
“This is big for us,” said UConn tight end Ryan Griffin, who had eight catches for 84 yards and one touchdown. “This keeps us bowl eligible. We’ve got to win out [our] last two, which is going to be tough, but now we know we can do it.”
Pittsburgh, which fell to an identical 4-6, 1-4 record, was coming off a dramatic three-overtime loss to No. 4 ranked Notre Dame last weekend in South Bend. Despite being held to just 45 yards (41 net) in 15 carries (no touchdowns), Ray Graham, the Panthers' leading ground gainer, insisted the Panthers did not suffer from an emotional letdown on Friday.
“We came out too sluggish and too flat,” said Graham, who was held to 45 yards rushing (41 net) by the Husky D. “Definitely give them credit, but I think we stopped ourselves.”
The Huskies scored on their first possession when a scoring pass from Whitmer to Griffin capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive. After the Connecticut defense—ranked No. 9 nationally—contained the Panthers on Pitt's first possession, the Huskies increased their advantage to 10 three minutes later when Chad Christen banged in a 29-yard field goal.
The margin grew to three possessions, 17-0, after Nick Williams returned a punt 80 yards to paydirt midway through the second period. McCombs, the redshirt sophomore from Staten Island who ran for over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns last year as a freshman, but who had just 547 yards and four TDs entering the contest, made it 24-0 with a two-yard score with a minute left in the half. It was Connecticut's first rushing touchdown since McCombs punched over a similar two-yard plunge in a 24-17 win over Buffalo on Sept. 29—another game played at The Rent in which Connecticut built a 24-7 win, then held on for dear life.
The Panthers finally got on track in the third period—simultaneous to the total disappearance of the Connecticut offense. A 42-yard field goal by Kevin Harper got Pittsburgh on the scoreboard 10:33 into the third. Then, in the fourth, two scoring tosses from QB Tino Sunseri (19-for-34, tk yards, no picks, three sacks) connected with Drew Caldwell and Mike Shanahan (no relation to THAT Mike Shanahan) for 11- and 18-yard scoring strikes respectively. But it was a classic case of too little, too late as Connecticut came away with a three-point win.
“We're proud really proud of the way the team prepared, and the way they started the game,” said UConn head coach Paul Pasqualoni, the winningest football coach in Big East history and a Chesire native. I thought we finished the blocks and ran the ball well early. That that allowed us to use misdirection passes and get some balls to Ryan Griffin. On defense, I thought we did a pretty good job stopping the run. We didn't do quite as well running the ball in the second half even though Lyle [McCombs] had that big play. Overall just proud of the way the kids played tonight.”
The Huskies, who, as referenced by Griffin, must run the table against Louisville and Cincinnati in order to qualify for postseason play for the first time in the past two seasons—dating back to the infamous 48-20 drubbing suffered at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
And running the table will be anything but easy for the Huskies, who must face Louisville, which entered Saturday's contest at Syracuse undefeated and ranked No. 9 in the nation. But by the time the smoke had settled at the Carrier Dome, the Orange had laid a good ol' fashioned asswhooping on the Cardinals, who woke up on Sunday having fallen all the way to No. 18/20. Both Connecticut and Louisville have a week off, so needless to say the Cardinals will come out on the 24th with smoke coming out of their ears. Plus, the game will be played at Papa John's Stadium in Louisville. The Huskies are 1-4 on the road this year, and haven't proven to be competitive against good teams on the road—they've lost to Rutgers and Syracuse by an average margin of 23 points.
At press time, the game was not scheduled to be televised live, and kickoff time was still to be determined.