By Phil Chardis
UConn Athletic Communications
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. --- As the UConn Huskies went into the locker room at halftime of their season opener Thursday night, they were desperately in need of some heroes.
Luckily, there were a few available. Two old heads and a pair of fresh legs sparked a second-half comeback that turned a 20-7 halftime deficit into a 27-20 victory over Holy Cross at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
It started in the halftime locker room with redshirt senior defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi, ejected in the first half for targeting, but standing up and giving a heartfelt speech to his teammates.
“The message was just ‘believe,’ Fatukasi said afterward, “It was a lot of adversity we were facing, but at the end of the day, we’re one team. We have to uplift one another. At this point, 11 is one, we all have to conquer.”
The message was heard loud and clear by Fatukasi’s defense, which held Holy Cross scoreless in the second half.
“He could have come in at halftime and hung his head and not say anything and not do anything,” coach Randy Edsall said. “But he was the guy at halftime that stood up and sent the message to those guys. He started talking and I was just listening. I said, ‘Hey guys, there’s nothing more to be said. Let’s go.’ I could tell it was important to him. It says a lot about him. That’s what you want.”
But it wouldn’t have been enough if it hadn’t been for the heroes on offense --- one playing in his 22nd game for UConn and another playing his first.
Redshirt senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs came off the bench in the third quarter in relief of starter David Pindell and led the Huskies to three unanswered touchdowns to take the lead and the game away from the visiting Crusaders. Bryant finished with 9 completions in 13 attempts for 124 yards and a touchdown and a whole lot of satisfaction.
“It was a great opportunity and it meant a lot to me,” Shirreffs said. “Most importantly, we got the win together. It’s big for us and something we can learn from together. I just tried to do what I was coached to do.”
After a career as a starter, Shirreffs admitted it was a different feeling to come in as a backup. But after a chance meeting with Edsall during the week that led to a productive meeting in the coach’s office, Shirreffs made sure to explain he was ready for whatever role was necessary to help the team.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been in this situation before,” Shirreffs said. “But in my mind, I was starting and I prepared like I was going to play, so I was ready.”
That’s an understatement. Shirreffs had the Huskies in the end zone less than a minute after entering the game and clearly lifted the entire offense.
“I think it helps that I have experience,” he said. “I’ve played in the environment before. But really, I prepared more for this game than I have for any game in the past.”
Experience was a also a big factor in the decision on the sidelines to make the quarterback change.
"As a coach, you can't just do everything by the book -- football is not that way," Edsall said. "You get a feel for things, you see how things are going, you see how guys are reacting. David did some good things while he was in there, but it was something I felt and I had talked about it with Rhett (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) at halftime. I thought I knew what we had to do to win and I felt by making the decision, it was going to give us that opportunity."
The young legs belong to redshirt freshman running back Nate Hopkins, whose debut was nothing short of spectacular, with 130 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries, the first UConn back to rush for 100 yards in his first game since Lyle McCombs in 2011.
“I’m excited, but more excited that we won,” Hopkins said. “It was nice going from being redshirted to playing a significant amount. This is the kind of thing you dream about not only all last year, but even right before the game. It was a blessing to be out there.”
Hopkins is no stranger to big games, having rushed for 2,841 yards and 26 TDs in high school. But this was a different world. He was glad to have Shirreffs at helm of the comeback.
“When Bryant is in the game, he’s real relaxed and calm, someone you can follow easily,” Hopkins said. “He’s been a starter here before, so it’s easy to get behind him. He cares a lot about the program.”
As the Huskies head into their first conference game against nationally-ranked USF on Sept. 9, they have plenty to build on – a victory, a comeback, and more than enough heroes.