On a chilly November night at Rentschler Field, when the Huskies knew their critics were waiting to write them off for good, UConn opened up a 24-0 lead at halftime and held on to defeat Pittsburgh 24-17 for the Huskies' first Big East Conference victory in 2012.
Tailback Lyle McCombs carried the ball 29 times for 120 yards and a touchdown, quarterback Chandler Whitmer completed 19 of 25 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown, and UConn's defense kept Pitt (4-6 overall, 1-4 Big East) out of the end zone until the fourth quarter.
"We've been in four games this year when we've lost by seven points or less," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "We've had our share of those kinds of games. I told the kids it's great to play your best football in November. I thought we went out tonight and showed what kind of team we could be from an offense, defense, and special teams standpoint.
With Louisville and Cincinnati still on the schedule, six victories and bowl eligibility remains an uphill battle for UConn (4-6, 1-4). But snapping a four-game losing streak cured a lot of aches and pains for the Huskies.
"The feeling I had [in the fourth quarter] was, ‘I don't care what happens, I'm not leaving this field without a win," said linebacker Sio Moore, who had six tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss in the victory before 33,503. "That's what everybody felt like on the defensive side of the ball and that's what we did."
The Huskies managed this against a Pitt team that extended Notre Dame to three overtimes last Saturday before losing 29-26. UConn opened the scoring with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Whitmer to tight end Ryan Griffin. Nick Williams returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown, and McCombs had a 2-yard TD run to cap the most productive half of the season for the Huskies, who controlled the ball for 19 minutes and 18 seconds before halftime.
"We give UConn credit," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "They made big plays, like the big one on the punt return. They were efficient on offense, and we weren't very good in the first half."
The Huskies set the tone immediately, receiving The Opening kick after losing the coin toss and marching 75 yards on 11 plays and using six minutes and 29 seconds to score on a 2-yard pass from Whitmer to Griffin.
"That's the type of offense we can play," said Griffin, who matched a career with six catches and also accumulated 84 yards. "We showed the type of team we are with the heart we've got and the senior leadership we have. We really showed what we are made of tonight.
"You look at each other and in everybody's eyes and you ask yourself what's going wrong. Luckily tonight we were hitting on all cylinders."
That first drive started with a 13-yard pass from Whitmer to Griffin on the first play of the game. The Huskies turned to McCombs six times on the drive. He picked up a first down with a five-yard run and also had a critical 12-yard pickup on second-and-goal from the Pitt 14 after a false start had pushed the Huskies back.
One play later, Griffin hauled in his fifth TD pass of the season and the Huskies had a 7-0 lead with 8:31 left in the first quarter.
"When you are calling defense, you're not happy when it's second-and-six, second-and-five or second-and-four," Pasqualoni said. "I thought the plays we were running early on got them running to the ball. Then Chandler came off that with some misdirection, play action. It was the run that set up the pass."
After a three-and-out by Pitt, which produced just seven yards for the Panthers, UConn increased its lead to 10-0 on a 29-yard field goal by placekicker Chad Christen with 1:43 left in the first quarter. UConn picked up 61 yards on 12 plays but stalled at the Pitt 12 when Whitmer threw an incompletion intended for McCombs.
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri (19-for-34, 302 yards, 2 TDs) connected with Mike Shanahan on an 18-yard touchdown pass with 2:46 left in the game to pull within seven. But UConn never gave the ball back to the Panthers after that. A 17-yard pass from Whitmer to Shakim Phillips on third-and-seven essentially put the game away.
"We held them off and got the win," defensive tackle Ryan Wirth said. "Everybody put a fork in us and that's what got us motivated. The young guys have done a great job keeping it alive for us seniors. I've never been a quitter and my team doesn't quit. We're going to fight to the end."