One test that had not come until Saturday was holding a lead in the fourth quarter. Guess what? The Huskies passed.
Staked to a 24-14 lead with just over eight minutes left at Byrd Stadium Saturday, the defense did bend a bit. But when it was time to shut Maryland down and send most of the crowd of 35,491 home disappointed, the tough guys on defense got the job done. With Maryland (2-1) at the UConn 32 and only one minute, 14 seconds remaining, UConn (2-1) denied the Terps the delight of a come-from-behind victory.
"We let go of a game last week against NC State and we wanted to make sure that didn't happen come out here to Maryland this week," linebacker Sio Moore said. "It was about ownership on that last drive. Not making a mistake on defense is what we're going to be about this year."
Maryland ran the ball and lost three yards. Freshman quarterback Perry Hills threw an incomplete pass, then completed one for a loss of four yards back to the 39. Taylor Mack, who was filling in for injured Blidi Wreh-Wilson, made the tackle on that one. Then facing fourth-and-18, Hills went deep and overthrew the end zone. The ball came to rest in the hands of UConn safety Andrew Adams.
Just like that, the Huskies had won their first road game of the season. They had conquered all the ghosts of Randy Edsall past and overcome a nasty virus that forced offensive lineman Adam Masters to sit out the game and had others wondering if they could make it.
"We had guys a little bit under the weather," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "We had to get production out of all three phases. We had to get a great performance out of the defense. We had to get production out of the offense and special teams. We hung in there."
Moore and Yawin Smallwood wouldn't admit that the viral bug slowed them much but it had its impact team wide. The Huskies sucked it up, however, and sacked Hills six times for 34 yards and had 11 tackles for 50 yards in losses. Smallwood continues to be sensational, finishing with 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Moore and Jory Johnson each had seven tackles.
"I'm just the guy there making the plays," Smallwood said. "Our front line deserves a lot of credit. We know what we're capable of doing as a unit. There are going to be games when the offense needs us to win a game and there are going to be times when we need them. I think this was a team victory."
The UConn offense stalled a bit in the third quarter, picking up only five yards. But a 34-yard Chad Christen field goal and an 11-yard touchdown run by Lyle Mcombs (27 carries, 94 yards) were enough to preserve a 14-7 halftime lead the Huskies built.
UConn's Wildcat offense even came alive as quarterback Scott McCummings ran for 44 yards and completed one pass. His three-yard TD run in the second quarter gave UConn a 14-0 lead.
"I just wanted to out there and quiet the crowd a little bit," McCummings said. "I thought everything on the Wildcat really clicked today. The offensive line did great. Everyone was staying on their blocks and opening big holes. I love playing on the road. I love being the bad guy."
Nick Williams, UConn's jack-of-all-trades, gave the Huskies the pick-me-up they needed on the road for the first time this season. With 7:05 left in the first half, Williams gave the Huskies a 7-0 lead with a 58-yard punt return to the end zone. It was the first punt return touchdown of Williams' UConn career and it was beauty.
Williams had no choice but to field the ground ball punt as it dribbled toward him near the Maryland sideline. He crossed the field to the other side and found a path along the opposite sideline, worked his magic and got to the end zone.
"That sparked us," Pasqualoni said. "It was a great effort on his part. He made a few people miss. That was really a key play The bench was fired up."
But the best sign for the Huskies in the first half was a 7-play, 36-yard touchdown drive that gave UConn a 14-0 lead when McCummings rushed 3 yards into the end zone with 12:35 left in the second quarter.
UConn took over on the Maryland 36 after a Cole Wagner punt and the defense pinned the Terps to their own 4. It was one of those situations where the Huskies had to score and did. Chandler Whitmer (10 of 16, 68 yards, no interceptions) completed a pass for seven yards to Michael Smith and McCombs has a 15-yard run to key the drive. McCummings scored on a third-and-goal from the 3.
After gaining just 239 yards total offense the week before in a 10-7 loss to North Carolina State, the Huskies managed 148 yards in the first half and led 14-7 at halftime. McCombs was the workhorse as usual, gaining 65 yards on 19 carries. Whitmer had the protection he needed to complete 7 of 10 passes for 44 yards. His longest completion was a 19-yarder to tight end John Delahunt.
Whitmer did not throw an interception but he did lose a fumble on the UConn's first possession of the game. Whitmer took a hit from linebacker Darin Drakeford, the ball was jarred out of his hands and then recovered by safety Eric Franklin at the UConn 47.
The Huskies did not pay the price for that turnover thanks to UConn cornerback Dwayne Gratz, who stepped in and intercepted a pass intended for receiver Marcus Leak. UConn got the ball back at its own 42. Gratz spent 12 hours resting in bed after the Huskies arrived for the game on Friday.
"That was one heck of a football game today," said Edsall, who shed a few tears during his press conference when he looked back at his 12 years at UConn. "I can't fault the effort today. You have to give a lot of credit to the Connecticut defense."