"We definitely did; I don't know if that was just us being complacent or what, but that's something that can't happen," Whitmer said after UConn defeated Buffalo 24-17 at Rentschler Field Saturday afternoon. "When you've got a lead like that, you've got to be able to finish them and bury those guys. We've got to do a better job."
If it sounds silly to criticize a victory, think a little deeper. UConn (3-2) was playing a Mid-American Conference team that had to restructure its offense for this game. Running back Branden Oliver, the fifth leading rusher in the nation, did not play against the Huskies because of a leg injury.
Buffalo (1-3) still ran the ball 39 times but 14 of those carries were by quarterback Alex Zordich (76 yards), who also completed 13 of 30 passes for 220 yards and one touchdown. On top of that, the Bulls celebrated Halloween just a bit early, pulling out a couple of trick plays that UConn didn't expect.
After a hook-and-ladder play that resulted in a 50-yard touchdown for Oliver's replacement, Brandon Murie, and a 44-yard field goal by Patrick Clarke, the Bulls actually had the ball at their own 20 with 1:27 left in the game – trailing by only seven points.
That never should have happened.
"I don't think we let up, no," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "I think they were fighting hard, and we were fighting hard. They fought their way back into it and well coached teams are going to do that."
The tone of Pasqualoni's voice said more than his words. The coach didn't seem ecstatic with this victory.
On that final possession, with the crowd (not anywhere near the 34,666 tickets that were distributed or sold) holding its breath, the Bulls picked up 21 yards on seven plays. But Zordich was stopped by Yawin Smallwood two yards short of a first down on fourth-and-four from the Buffalo 39.
"Early, we got on them. We had a big play before half and then made it 24-7," said UConn linebacker Jory Johnson, who led the Huskies with 14 tackles, including two for a loss of four yards. "The game kinda didn't end like we wanted it to but we were able to get the tough win at the end.
"They hit us with a big play. The hook-and-ladder is a gimmick play that they executed well. That kind of got their momentum going a little bit. They came in heavy on the run and they started throwing the ball a little more. They got some deep shots in there, so they were able to make it close at the end."
With UConn opening conference play next Saturday at No. 23 Rutgers (4-0) it would have made everyone feel just a bit better if the Huskies had flexed their Big East muscles, put about 40 points on the board and won comfortably.
Instead, UConn gained just 90 yards in the third quarter and only 27 in the fourth – after accumulating 243 yards in the first half.
"Maybe it wasn't taking the foot off the accelerator as much as switching gears," wide receiver Nick Williams said. "It was more of a balanced attack. I think the second half, if you look at it, there was a whole lot more runs than passes. Up 24-7, you do whatever you can to win."
UConn hasn't won consecutive games since ending the 2010 regular season with five straight victories. Pasqualoni said he liked the complementary game of the Huskies, but everyone in the UConn locker room knows it will take four quarters of intensity to win Big East games.
That big play before halftime that Johnson referred to was a 50-yard touchdown run by backup tailback Martin Hyppolite. Entering the game, Hyppolite had four carries for five yards. He finished Saturday with 60 yards on six carries and Lyle McCombs had 97 yards and a 2-yard TD run on 29 carries – 22 of them on first-down plays.
The Huskies drove 57 yards on nine plays on their first possession of the game but the series stalled when Whitmer threw behind McCombs on third-and-three at the Buffalo 12. Chad Christen came on for a 29-yard field goal and the Huskies led 3-0 with 10:10 left in the first quarter.
|Tight end Ryan Griffin diving into the end zone (US PRESSWIRE)|
UConn found itself in a bit of trouble late in the first quarter after Buffalo took a 7-3 lead. The Huskies' defense yielded pass plays of 16, 21 and 30 yards as the Bulls put together a 75-yard drive and scored on a 4-yard run by Murie.
That's when Buffalo surprised the Huskies with a perfectly executed onside kick that gave the Bulls possession at the 50. But UConn's defense was up to that challenge as the Bulls went three-and-out and were forced to punt.
Punter Tyler Grassman pinned the Huskies back to their own 8 with a 36-yard rugby-style punt. But UConn remained calm and collected on offense, putting together perhaps the best drive of the season. Whitmer completed a 25-yard pass to Shakim Phillips, a 14-yard pass to Michael Smith and a 17-yard pass on third down to McCombs, moving to the Buffalo 36. Whitmer received tremendous protection from UConn's offensive line on the entire drive, giving him time to go through his progressions and find open receivers.
"We made some big plays, including a third-down conversion, which is huge for us," tight end Ryan Griffin said. "Those drives give us confidence going into the rest of the season, especially the Big East season."
On the first play of the second quarter, Whitmer threw a quick hit over the middle to Griffin, who lunged into the end zone and UConn had regained the lead at10-7. The 92-yard drive used 10 plays and 5:09 off the clock.
"It was the right look that we had been practicing all week," Griffin said. "The middle of the field was wide open. That's what I was looking for. We put that in this week and we worked on it. [Chandler] put it right on me and I didn't have to worry about it. I wasn't going down. I didn't want the goal-line personnel out there, so luckily I got in there.
"We need to improve as an offense. I feel we had chances to put the game away. We can't leave it up to the defense every game."