EAST HARTFORD - No fans of the squad had watched the UConn football team play in any fashion for some 21 months, so an exciting end to the Huskies’ scrimmage Saturday at Pratt & Whitney Stadium was greatly appreciated to the diehards who showed up.
Of course, keeping in line with the recent history of the program, the dramatic finish wasn’t without a near abject disaster.
Playing before onlookers for the first time since a loss to Temple in Philadelphia Nov. 30, 2019, the Huskies gave the fans a nice parting gift.
Freshman quarterback Tyler Phommachanh hit receiver Josh Tracey deep over the middle for a 40-yard touchdown, guiding the third team to a score during a practice-ending, two-minute drill that “won the day” for the UConn offense.
However, a sideline interference penalty was called by the officials on the winning team following the play. A slight change in NCAA rules in recent years probably meant the penalty would have been enforced on the extra point - which it was, in this case, after which freshman kicker Noe Ruelas converted.
The Huskies will open the season Aug. 28 at Fresno State. Their home opener is Sept. 4 against Holy Cross.
UConn coach Randy Edsall, whose team did not play any games in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, said he was pleased with the team’s overall performance.
“I think we’re in good shape. We don’t to be ready until two weeks from (Saturday). And then we will,” Edsall said. “I like where we’re at right now. We’re not where we need to be, yet, but we will be ready to play on the 28th.”
Before Phommachanh, the freshman from Stratford, made his big play, the offenses and defenses had traded victories in the two-minute drill. Quarterback Jack Zergiotis led the first team offense on a drive that ended with a 40-yard field goal from Joe McFadden.
Freshman linebacker Desmond Fogle then made a dramatic interception of a tipped pass from quarterback Steven Krajewski to give the second team defense a win.
It’s unclear how much, but the UConn defense -- which set national records for futility in 2018 and was only marginally better in 2019 -- has seemingly improved a good deal since the last time it took the field.
“Playing faster, getting to the ball, and really just being a relentless defense in all aspects, trying to get the ball out. We’ve got a bunch of ball hawks on this defense,” defensive tackle Lwal Uguak said, noting Fogle’s big play.
Phommachanh had an interception of his own during an earlier portion of the practice and is developing much as his peers are, his coach says.
“He’s progressing. He’s like all the guys. He’s doing some good things and there’s things he still needs to work on,” Edsall said of Phommachanh, whose brother Taisun is a quarterback at Clemson. “But he’s no different than everybody else on the team. It’s hard for freshman, period, even though he was here in the spring. But it’s even harder for a quarterback. He’ll be fine. He just has to keep working.”
The Huskies have 11 practices remaining until their debut, including another scrimmage on Tuesday.
They believe they took a big step forward on Saturday, in part thanks to their re-introduction to the public.
“It’s awesome having all the fans out here, getting to see them, getting to hear them cheer whenever a play is made,” linebacker Ian Swenson said.
Edsall’s team is 6-30 since his return to the helm in 2017, ranking among the worst teams in the nation each season. But there is growing optimism around the program that it can make major strides after its year off.
“I thought it was good to be out here in front of the fans. I want to thank all the people that came out. That’s part of it, too. These guys haven’t played in front of anybody,” Edsall said. “Just being here in the stadium with people in it, that helps us get prepared.”
Although the temperature stayed just under 90 degrees Saturday, the Huskies had practiced in some oppressive heat and humidity Thursday and Friday. “We’ve got to get used to that because we’re about to play in some 100-degree weather,” Uguak said, referring to the season opener in Fresno, California. … Zergiotis ran with the starters, Krajewski the second team, and Phommachanh the third team. The team’s fourth quarterback, Micah Leon, was in uniform but was not involved in any contact plays. Edsall refused to acknowledge if he was injured. “He just didn’t practice,” Edsall said with a grin. … Zergiotis was 10-for-15 passing during the main portion of the scrimmage, Krajewski 7-for-13, and Phommachanh 2-for-6. The latter had two sizable scrambles out of the pocket, however. … Kevon Jones, the junior defensive end from East Hartford, continues to practice with the third team defense as he tries to emerge from Edsall’s proverbial dog house. … Wide receiver Matt Drayton suffered an injury at some point prior to Saturday’s practice and was not on hand. It’s not clear if the sophomore, who caught 21 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2019, will miss the entire upcoming season as he recovers. … Heron Maurisseau, Cam Ross, and Kevin Clercius were the starting wide receivers Saturday. … Freshman safety Alfred Chea intercepted a Phommachanh pass early in the day.