UConn coach Bob Diaco says loss to UCF ‘sickening’

EAST HARTFORD >> Sounds of discontent could be heard from those rain-soaked fans who stuck it out to the very end in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference showdown at Rentschler Field.

Memories of the promising opening minutes had long since subsided as quarterback Bryant Shirreffs fired seven straight incompletions in the red zone in the closing minutes with the Huskies desperately pursuing the tying score.

The missed opportunities on offense and inability to stop the Knights on three straight offensive possessions combined for UConn to suffer a 24-16 loss to UCF that UConn coach Bob Diaco called “sickening.”

UConn (3-5, 1-4 in the American Athletic Conference) ran 25 plays from the inside the UCF 22 and only had three Bobby Puyol field goals and a 3-yard scoring run by Arkeel Newsome to show for it.

“We are going to mourn this sickening loss for 24 hours, just like we celebrate for 24 hours, we mourn for 24 hours and then we are going to move on,” Diaco said. “(A) 3-5 (record) is not a representation of the work, the investment, the improvement that we have made as a program, that is the worst part. Winning these games is the main thing, I got that, I am not an idiot, I understand that but these guys have so much, they have come so far, the staff is trying as hard as it possibly can and in the games, in five of them it hasn’t been enough and I take full accountability for that.”

UConn had a chance to take command of the game in the early going.

UConn led 13-0 after a gorgeous diving catch by Noel Thomas set up Newsome’s 3-yard scoring run. It was the largest advantage held by the Huskies in the first half of a game dating back to last year’s game against UCF.

The Knights (4-3, 2-2) drove 93 yards on eight plays with freshman McKenzie Milton throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to freshman Dedrick Snelson. It was the fifth time this season the Huskies have given up a scoring drive of at least 90 yards and eighth scoring drive of at least 86 yards against the Huskies.

The Huskies were able to respond with a drive into the red zone on the ensuing possession. The Huskies went for a fake field goal as Tommy Myers was unable to hold onto the pass from Tyler Davis but UConn caught a break when it was called for a false start. Puyol was able to hit a 35-yard field goal. However, UCF drove 75 yards with the assistance of a late hit call on Cam Stapleton. Milton connected with Jordan Akins for a 19-yard scoring pass with 1 second left in the first half.

“You can’t give up points in the final two minutes of the half, that was a big moment,” Diaco said. “We let the proverbial rope slip out of our hands a little bit there in the final minute and a half of the half and it is a different ball game.”

UConn’s Arkeel Newsome ran for 101 yards while Noel Thomas caught nine passes for 165 yards. It marked the third time that the Huskies’ two more dynamic offensive playmakers topped the 100-yard mark in the same game but the first time that the Huskies failed to come out with the victory.

“We just didn’t make enough plays,” said UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who left the game briefly after jamming his right wrist. “They made adjustments like any good team would do and it was up to us to change what we were doing. I thought we moved the ball really well but we just couldn’t execute in the red zone.

“It is unacceptable to make that many trips to the red zone and come up with so few points so we have to figure that out. We have to hammer down on how we are going to score touchdowns rather than field goals.”

Thomas had a chance to haul in a pass from Shirreffs late in the game that would have pulled the Huskies within two points but was unable to come down with the ball.

“The ball was in my hands,” Thomas said. “It is a play I have to make.”

It was Thomas’ fifth straight 100-yard receiving game, one shy of the program record set by Keith Hugger in the final five games of the 1981 season and the 1982 season opener.

The Huskies were a plus seven in the turnover department in wins over UCF in 2014 and 2015 but neither team came up with a turnover. Diaco cited the inability to come up with takeaways as a huge issue in the loss.

“In a game in these weather conditions, you expect there to be miscues and mistakes,” UCF coach Scott Frost said. “We had a few penalties here and there but being able to take care of the ball on offense was critical.

Freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton passed for 317 yards and three touchdowns throwing touchdown passes of 22 yards to Snelson and 19 to Jordan Akins. Taking away two runs totalling 40 yards, UCF managed 43 yards on 28 carries.

Diaco has been on the receiving ends of ridicule for his decision to declare UConn’s annual games with UCF a rivalry game and even creating a trophy commemorating the so-called rivalry between two programs that share little except the same conference.

After the game the Knights neglected to take the trophy with them back to Orlando.

“It was just another ballgame for us,” said Milton. “Next week will be another ballgame for us and the week after that.”