EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Call it a complete and total disaster.
If this had been opening night for a Broadway show, the reviews would have been terrible and the production might have faced cancellation.
College football is a bit more forgiving – but not much.
Unless Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel calls Paul Pasqualoni into his office Friday morning and fires the third-year UConn coach, there’s nothing equal to that comparison. Such a harsh decision is unlikely – despite public sentiment in Husky Nation after a 33-18 loss to Towson Thursday night at Rentschler Field.
It was, without a doubt, the worst loss in the Pasqualoni years at UConn. This has to be rock bottom, doesn’t it?
Junior running back Terrance West rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns and backup Sterlin Phifer scored two touchdowns as Towson claimed its first-ever win over an FBS opponent. Towson, ranked No. 11 in the FCS preseason poll, intercepted Huskies quarterback Chandler Whitmer once and sacked him five times as UConn lost its season opener for the first time since 2010.
Rob Ambrose, in his fifth season as Towson coach, enjoyed a triumphant return to Connecticut, where he was an assistant coach under current Maryland coach Randy Edsall for seven seasons at a time when the Huskies made the transition from I-AA to FBS. Towson was 0-6 against FBS schools since 2008.
“I’m sure in the eyes of some it will be considered very, very big,” Ambrose said. “We’ve played big competition before. We’ve played well but we couldn’t get a win. In the history of this, I suppose one day, people will look back at this as a very large thing.
But the family that’s in this locker room right now, we care about each other and we have goals. It didn’t really matter who we played tonight. For us to reach our goals, we had to win.”
All UConn can do right now is go back to work and prepare for Edsall’s arrival at The Rent on Sept. 14, when Maryland visits and the Huskies will be desperate for a victory.
Pasqualoni, coming off 5-7 records in his first two seasons at UConn, was already on the hot seat. With upcoming games against Maryland and Michigan, the pressure on Pasqualoni will increase dramatically. UConn's last loss to a team at the FCS or I-AA level had been a defeat to Eastern Washington in 2001, when the Huskies were making the transition to the big time.
A home crowd of 30,689 booed the Huskies throughout the game Thursday and many fans left after the third quarter. There simply wasn’t anything for UConn to feel good about.
“It’s disappointing,” Pasqualoni said. “One of our strengths of our team over the past couple seasons has been our run defense and West by himself had 156 yards.”
Towson quarterback Peter Athens scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 7:35 left in the third quarter, capping a 13-play, 95-yard drive to give the Tigers a 19-10 lead. A 6-yard run by West with 6:02 left in the fourth increased the lead to 26-10.
UConn wide receiver Shakim Phillips caught his second TD pass from Whitmer with 3:29 left in the game. Whitmer then passed to Spencer Parker for the two-point conversion to make it 26-18. The UConn defense forced Towson to punt with 3:04 remaining, but freshman Brian Lemelle fumbled the return and Tanner Vallely recovered at the UConn 30. West completed the scoring with a 5-yard run with 16 seconds remaining.
“It’s devastating,” UConn safety Obi Melifonwu said. “We have to come back next week and prepare. We just didn’t play as hard as we could.”
Towson, 7-4 last season, led 13-10 at halftime, taking advantage of an interception at the UConn 29 as well as the Huskies' inability to score a touchdown with a first-and-goal on the Towson 1 late in the second quarter.
Towson defensive tackle Jon Desir tipped a Chandler Whitmer pass but held on to the ball as it dropped between his legs for the interception that gave the Tigers possession at the UConn 29. Towson needed only two plays to score. Phifer ran around right end for 24 yards, then picked up 5 yards to the left for his second touchdown of the game with 7:04 left in the half. D.J. Soven's point-after attempt was wide right and the Tigers led 13-7.
“We work to get our hands up on the quick passes,” Desir said. “I was able to tip it. I looked up and it was right in front of my face. It almost hit the ground. I reached for it and had to catch it between my legs. I knew I had it.”
Whitmer bounced back with completions of 20 and 22 yards to wide receiver Geremy Davis on UConn's drive. A 22-yard run by tailback Lyle McCombs came up 1-yard short of the end zone but gave the Huskies a first down. A 1-yard loss by McCombs and an illegal substitution pushed UConn back to the 5. After an incomplete pass intended for Deshon Foxx, the Huskies settled for a 22-yard field goal from Chad Christen to make it 13-10.
“The kids are pretty resilient,” Pasqualoni said. “I think they know it is one game and we didn’t play well as a team in any area.”
Whitmer, UConn’s starting quarterback for the second straight season, got off to a rocky start. He was 16 of 28 for 206 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked five times. It will be interesting to see if Pasqualoni stays with Chandler or makes a change.
“They were getting a good pass rush,” Whitmer said. “Maybe I could have gotten the ball out quicker.”
Pasqualoni said he believes Whitmer is having trouble seeing over the pass rush. Whitmer denied that. Whitmer also doesn’t think Pasqualoni will shake up the starting lineup just to light a fire under the Huskies.
“No, not at all,” Whitmer said. “We’ve just got to keep working and keep going.”