UConn defeats Yale for first win in two years, ‘sigh of relief’ for Huskies

Photo of Mike Anthony

EAST HARTFORD — Before the locker room celebration and before a news conference starring an interim coach turned giddy child who deserves a bar of soap in the mouth, there was a final play that left most UConn football players feeling hopeful and helpless.

Yale quarterback Nolan Grooms lofted a pass toward the end zone with time expired, and in the balance hung this game with UConn nursing a six-point lead.

“Just silently praying to myself,” said Huskies quarterback Steven Krajewski.

“I couldn’t even see who came down with the ball until the very end,” said defensive back Tre Wortham.

It was UConn’s Tui Faumuina-Brown. His interception sealed the Huskies’ 21-15 win Saturday at Rentschler Field, so into the conversation about a season that was shaping up as something all-time and historically bad enters “Couldabeenworse.”

That’s how fast-talking Lou Spanos sounded about a half-hour later while discussing the program’s first victory since Oct. 26, 2019, a span of 721 days. He was asked about the final play, during which several players from both teams converged on the ball.

“With the analytics and the hieroglyphics and then the 3-D of the chalkboard,” Spanos said, “it came out the way we wanted: a win.”

Spanos brought the game ball, presented to him by players, to the news conference and placed it on the podium.

“It’s the best ball I ever had,” Spanos said. “I’m going to be sleeping with this tonight. There’s going to be a 24-hour rule. I’m going to tuck it when I get up about four in the morning and say, ‘All right, ball, on to ...’”

Spanos picked up in his first W as a head coach Saturday. He then dropped his first public F-bomb.

“Oops,” Spanos said. “I cussed. Hey, please guys, five-second delay. We’re on to Middle Tennessee.”

The Huskies felt a little joy Saturday, avoided the embarrassment of suffering a winless season. With a national search for the program’s next coach ongoing, with any significant goals already by the wayside, the team had reached the point of simply trying to avoid dubious distinction.

UConn did that, racing to a 21-0 lead before stumbling their way off the list of winless teams. Arizona and UNLV remain the only FBS teams without a victory.

Saturday could have been a football disaster.

No team from the Football Bowl Subdivision since Georgia State in 2013 had lost two games to Football Championship Subdivision teams. UConn’s loss to Holy Cross of FCS in Week 2 led to Randy Edsall’s departure and Spanos’ promotion from defensive coordinator, and the season continued to spiral.

After decent showings against Wyoming and Vanderbilt, UConn lost last week at UMass to become the primary mockery of a sport. And playing Yale started to feel like the last glimmer of opportunity, a game against a lower-level, in-state team that was a real rival in another lifetime.

This was the 50th meeting between the teams and for UConn (1-7) it was essentially a must-win situation. Middle Tennessee State (2-4) is next on the schedule, Friday night at Rentschler Field, before a double bye. The Huskies close the season with a seemingly unmanageable set of games — at Clemson on Nov. 13, at Central Florida on Nov. 20 and home against Houston on Nov. 27.

Much of the pressure is off now, though. The Huskies had four interceptions, two of them ripped from the arms of Yale receivers by Wortham, one by Durante Jones and, of course, the last one by Faumuina-Brown.

“I had a sigh of relief once I saw Tui come down with it,” Wortham said.

Krajewski was 21 of 32 for 199 yards and two touchdown passes, 63 yards to Keelan Marion to open the scoring and 14 yards to Kevens Clercius to make it 14-0 at halftime.

The game nearly started to look like what an FBS-FCS game should look like when the Huskies took a 21-0 lead early in the third quarter, but Yale made big plays and UConn made big mistakes — including a penalty for an illegal substitution that gave Yale another shot at the final play from the 30-yard line.

It’s been quite a trying season, one of change and loss after loss, and the absence of Spanos and two assistants last week at UMass due to COVID-19. Now, though, there’s a win on the board, meaning little in the long run, meaning a lot to the discussion of the season and the environment at The Rent.

UConn hadn’t won at home since a 24-21 victory over Wagner, another FCS team, to open the 2019 season on Aug. 29, 2019. Saturday’s attendance was announced at 18,596 and was actually much lower because it always is, but fans who did arrive Saturday morning and departed Saturday afternoon had something to be happy about other than what was on the grill and in the cooler.

The Huskies won a football game. Their interim coach, a longtime NFL assistant whom UConn players seem to adore, is almost certain to be working elsewhere next season, but he got his game ball and said all the right things afterward, despite the expletive.

“We say, a team sport,” Spanos said. “And the coaches I’ve been with, it’s never really about the head coach. It’s more about the team. And that’s what sports is. It’s nothing about my adventure. It’s about our adventure for the ’21 season.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst