UConn's defense, expected to be solid and stingy at the start of the season, had taken a lot of heat for a 2-4 start. Injuries, mistakes, the inability to prevent big plays all played a role. And the past two weeks, Western Michigan and West Virginia toyed with the Huskies through the air, racking up the passing yards.
But back home at Rentschler Field, before a homecoming crowd of 37,162, the Huskies drew their line in the sand. Enough was enough, the defense said. Facing the double threat of USF quarterback B.J. Daniels, the defensive unit got together before the game and listened to their leader – linebacker Sio Moore.
"I just told the guys we gotta finish," Moore said. "We had a good week of practice. It was kind of a "bring your ish" type of week. That's all it was. There was nothing more to it but that. Finishing games. There were games that were very similar to these that we lost. And we made an effort this week that it's not going to happen again."
The Huskies (3-4, 1-1 Big East) found themselves in a familiar situation. Ahead by six points with just over three minutes to play, the Bulls were marching toward the end zone. But facing fourth-and-seven at the UConn 27, the Huskies held USF to a three-yard pass play from Daniels to Sterli Griffin.
UConn took over with 3:19 remaining and ran out the clock. For the second consecutive season the Huskies defeated USF without scoring an offensive touchdown.
"What I liked was the look in the eyes of our guys," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said of the defense in the fourth quarter. "They were determined that they weren't going to let this get away from them. We had talked last week [after losing to West Virginia] about getting ahead in the third quarter and taking that lead into the fourth quarter and finishing the game.
"We didn't have a big lead, but we had a lead. They got that done tonight and that's a great step to take there. That's a big step."
USF (4-2, 0-2) came in averaging 39.8 points and leading the Big East in total offense with an average of 503.6 yards a game. But the Huskies held the Bulls to 164 yards passing and 339 total yards. USF fumbled three times and lost two, including one with 7:06 left in the third quarter that ultimately was the biggest play of the game.
"Turnovers will kill you," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "The last couple years we have played UConn and whoever lost the turnover battle, lost the game. Today was the same story."
The Bulls were on their own 10 when Darrell Scott was held for no gain on a rush. But defensive tackle Twyon Martin stripped the ball from Scott and it took a fortunate bounce into the hands of cornerback Byron Jones.
"Twyon made a great play by stripping the ball out," Jones said. "I guess the ball kind of flew out of the pile. From there it was just scoop and score. I looked and there was no one around me. I felt I could get the ball and score. It's an easy play to scoop the ball up and score."
Pasqualoni talked about how good he felt for Jones and safety Ty-Meer Brown, two redshirt freshmen who have been thrown into the fire since cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson suffered a knee injury against Buffalo. Both got their first starts against West Virginia and they were victimized on big plays in that disastrous second half.
But Jones found the end zone for UConn's only touchdown and Brown had one of two interceptions for the Huskies.
"I just wanted to come out and show a little maturity," Brown said. "A couple of things happened last week but I had to put them behind me and keep moving. Every time you make a big play you get more and more confident in your game. . . . We were on a losing streak. This is big for getting our confidence back and getting on the right track."
UConn's other interception came on a tip by Yawin Smallwood that Moore picked off. Moore had eight tackles, as did Brown. Jory Johnson led the way with 11.
UConn led 6-3 at halftime and that was huge because the Bulls have been an outstanding first-half team this year, outscoring their opponents 65-7 in the first quarter their first four games. Maikon Bonani opened the scoring with a 23-yard field goal but even that felt like a victory for Pasqualoni.
"They did it again tonight, but it was a field goal – not a touchdown," he said. "We kind of got ourselves in order after that first drive. Stopping them and forcing them to kick three and not getting seven on the first drive was really big. We settled down after that."
UConn tailback Lyle McCombs rushed 32 times for 130 yards but other than that the offense struggled. Quarterback Johnny McEntee passed for 103 yards and was sacked seven times.
But the Huskies always have Dave Teggart, who kicked field goals of 18, 46 and 28 yards to provide nine of the winning points. Teggart now has four games this season and 18 in his career with multiple field goals. And just like last year, when he sent the Huskies to the Fiesta Bowl with a game-winning kick at USF, he came through again.
The senior kicker remains UConn's most optimistic player.
"[People] doubted us last year, but there's something about the Connecticut Huskies at the end of the year when we get towards October and November," Teggart said. "There's something about playing when the weather gets cold and the games mean more."