By Phil Chardis
UConn Athletic Communications
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. --- The shutout was so close, that the UConn football defense could almost taste it.
It had been five years and 65 games since the Huskies had been able to celebrate the ultimate single-game defensive achievement, but here they were, just over seven minutes away from putting the whitewash on Tulsa, an American Athletic Conference opponent which came to the Rent on Saturday averaging a gaudy 35.4 points per game.
But as UConn has learned throughout the 2017 season, college football is a full 60-minute game --- even down to the final tick of the clock. In those last seven minutes, the Huskies’ lead had melted to 20-14 and Tulsa, with possession on the UConn 9, had managed to snap the ball an instant before time ran out.
Tulsa quarterback Luke Skipper’s pass headed for the end zone, carrying with it the fine line between fulfillment and frustration for both teams.
That’s when UConn senior linebacker Junior Joseph made sure the Huskies’ finest defensive effort of the season would not go unrewarded. Joseph, who had strained his back earlier in the game, got up in the air and outfought Tulsa receiver Keenan Johnson to knock down the pass and secure UConn’s 20-14 victory. It was the second straight win for the Huskies (3-4 overall, 2-3 AAC) and their first win at home since the season opener on Aug. 31. They will go for three straight on Oct. 28, when they play a non-conference game against SEC-foe Missouri at Pratt & Whitney Stadium.
“It was our scramble rule,” Joseph said afterward. “When the quarterback starts scrambling, you stay with your guy. My guy came into the end zone, so I had to stay with him the entire play. I saw the ball and just made a play on it. I was glad I was able to stay with it and make that play for my teammates.”
In the bigger picture, the UConn defense has made a lot of plays over the past two weeks, since a lopsided 70-31 home loss to Memphis, a defeat that the Huskies, to a man, termed “embarrassing.”
“The 70 points put everybody through a reality check,” Joseph said. “It took everyone’s heart that night and the next day, we took a stand and said that’s never going to happen to us again. We went to work every day from that point on.”
“It’s been more attention to detail in practice, going 100 percent every single play in practice,” Joseph added. “Coach (Randy) Edsall makes practice harder than the game. When you make practice that hard, the game is a little easier and guys are starting to buy into it. Everyone’s communicating, everyone’s on the same page and thing are clicking.”
The Huskies allowed Tulsa (2-6, 1-3) 453 yards in total offense, but 200 of that total came in the fourth quarter after UConn had totally dominated the first three. The Huskies had six sacks in the game, 11 tackles for loss and an interception.
“We played well, but we had opportunities to put them away and we didn’t take advantage of that,” coach Randy Edsalll said. “We have to figure out what happened in the last five minutes or so. I thought defensively, for 3½ quarters, we played very, very well. Then …. I don’t know. But the guys’ effort has been better. It’s been a total effort by the defensive linemen. Anytime you implement new things, maybe things – fundaments and techniques that guys may not have been used to playing – I think it takes a little bit of time to feel comfortable.”
The UConn offense scored two touchdowns, one on an 80-yard flea-flicker from quarterback Bryant Shirreffs to wideout Hergy Mayala, but it was two other drives that ended with field goals by kicker Mike Tarbutt that bothered the UConn quarterback.
“Both drives we got down to the one yard line … we’ve got to score there,” said Shirreffs, who completed and outstanding 23 of 29 passes for 372 yards. “Then, we don’t put the defense in that predicament at the end of the game. But the most important thing is, we won.”
Thanks, at the crucial moment, to Junior Joseph.
“Junior is one of the guys the freshmen look up to,” said freshman defensive back Brayden Brown. “You can see how much it means to him. He’s one of the guys you want to play hard for. He’s giving everything he has, so it makes you want to give everything you have.”
Everything the Huskies had was just enough, especially on the last play.
“You just hope you can make a play,” Edsall said, ”because the kids expended to much energy to try and get a win and you don’t want to see it come down to that situation at the end of the game. You’re dying for them … it puts some age on you.”