UConn football team’s self-inflicted wounds leave bowl hopes in peril: ‘We really hurt ourselves’

WEST POINT, N.Y. — When Jim Mora gathered the UConn football team late Saturday afternoon in the visitor's locker room at Michie Stadium, happy cadets were filing out of the bleachers and cannon blasts were echoing in the distance.

Specific analysis of the day’s lost opportunity could wait, he said. The Huskies’ 34-17 loss to Army was so fresh, a season's momentum meeting a wall of self-inflicted wounds, and this was not the time to rue all those points left on the field, all the needless penalties, all the breakdowns.

Mora just told players that he was proud. He asked them to stay together to support one another.  

“But we all know, and he knows, this is not how we wanted to end it,” freshman running back Victor Rosa said.

“We're hurting pretty bad,” said senior linebacker Ian Swenson, who was holding back tears.

UConn set itself up for this with its success. The final game on the schedule was going to be really rewarding or really painful. It was meaningful football. The program, the players, had experienced so little of in recent years.

The Huskies entered at 6-5, having exceeded any expectations if any even existed, and may have been playing with house money. But after they lost, largely due to their own unforced errors, they dejectedly boarded a bus, carrying an unsettling feeling into Thanksgiving break that this journey may have ended just west of the Hudson River — or on the Army goal line, in a way.

“We've been playing well,” Mora said, holding a brief press conference in a storage area off the stadium concourse. “And today we didn't. We really hurt ourselves.”

Did they ever.

UConn’s first two possessions reached the Army 1 but yielded only three points. The Huskies were flagged for 10 offensive penalties. There were five false starts in the first quarter alone, seven in the game. Freshman quarterback Zion Turner threw two interceptions.

Special teams were a mess, starting with George Caratan’s punt being blocked and scooped for an Army touchdown 2:10 into the game. The Huskies bottled up the Army running game for stretches but allowed the Golden Knights to take the lead for good on a 75-yard run by Braheam Murphy early in the third quarter. UConn, it seemed, was playing against Army and against its own anxiety. 

The Huskies had won five of six, including last week’s upset of Liberty to reach bowl eligibility. They had been resolute and opportunistic throughout most of October and November. They came to Army looking to clinch the program’s first winning record since 2010. And they fell short because they fell flat — not necessarily in the flow of the game, but in its crucial moments.

Now UConn’s resume is in the hands of college football juries who must analyze the season in its entirely and figure how, if at all, the team fits into any December plans. The Huskies are bowl eligible but bowl fragile, having met the only hard-fast criteria. As an independent, the team certainly can be squeezed out of the picture.

So maybe the season ended Saturday. UConn won’t know for a few weeks. Maybe the final images of this program-changing season were of the Huskies making one mistake after another. Maybe the final sounds were of those stadium-shaking cannons and of Mora trying to inject some pride into the locker room. 

“As disappointed as we all are, I think it's important we take a step back and realize and recognize what those young men have accomplished,” said Mora, who took over a team that was 1-11 in 2021 and had won just four games over the past three seasons. “I think the over/under in Vegas was two-and-a-half wins. Not that I care about Vegas, because I don't. But it was there. It was in print. And right now we're sitting on six and hopefully we'll get a chance to play another game.”

A 7-5 record would have made those bowl committee and TV discussions a lot easier. UConn instead settles for the same .500 record it had when last reaching a bowl, in 2015, as a member of the American Athletic Conference.

The Huskies responded to Army’s opening score by driving inside the Army 1, where Rosa, via review, was ruled to have come up just short of the left pylon. Four plays later, pushed back to the 6 by a false start, Noe Ruelas was kicking a field goal. Army’s 7-3 lead stood after the next UConn possession, which also came within inches of a touchdown. Robert Burns, via another review, was ruled just short of the goal line on a first-down run and three plays later he was dropped for a loss on fourth down.

These were not quite the meltdowns of the program’s most infamous goal line failure against a service academy. That came at Navy in 2016. But they do add up to what could be the missing pieces in a UConn bowl game puzzle.

The Huskies took a 10-7 lead on Rosa’s 43-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter, but Army drove 80 yards and took a 13-10 lead at halftime. Penalties and punting and turnovers remained issues in the second. UConn went ahead for a second time, 17-13, on Turner’s keeper early in the third quarter. On the next play from scrimmage, Murphy zigzagged, virtually untouched, for 75 yards.

Army’s next touchdown, to make it 27-17, was set up by a shanked punt by Bruno Perlicki that led to possession at the UConn 38. And the Golden Knights’ final touchdown was set up by the first of two Turner interceptions in the fourth quarter. The Golden Knights gained all 320 of their yards on the ground. An opponent can live through such accumulation, but not with back-breaking plays like the Murphy touchdown.

“We did a good job against it … except for,” Mora said. “Those are the ones that kill you. When you're a really good defense, and we're moving toward that, you don't have those ‘except for’ plays. You shut them down. Teams that win consistently, they don't have self-inflicted wounds — at least that many." 

Mora added, “That's kind of the story of the game, us shooting ourselves in the foot. … I've never not liked the effort of this team. Performance and effort are two different things. We played with great effort.”

But without much efficiency. It was the bitter final submission to quite an uplifting story. And now, it is possible, that Mora’s first season at UConn coach is over. There’s even a remote possibility that it goes down as his only season at UConn.  

“These guys are just different and I appreciate them so much,” Mora said of players. “They've added a lot of value to my life and hopefully I’ve added a tiny bit to theirs. I hope UConn Nation, Husky Nation, is proud of the direction these players are taking this program. Those are hard words when you're as disappointed as we are today.”