UConn football coach Jim Mora aims to raise morale as lopsided losses mount: 'Not discouraged'

STORRS — There was a sense of optimism as fall camp ramped up for a UConn football team coming off a 1-11 season.

New coach Jim Mora talked about fixing a broken culture and returning players noted the change in atmosphere from last season. As it turned out, the new culture would soon be tested.

The Huskies (1-3) have lost two in a row, including a 59-0 loss at No. 4 Michigan. Next up is a trip to No. 12 NC State Saturday.

For a young, overmatched team, the schedule could be deflating. On Sunday night, Mora issued a challenge to his players to stay focused and energetic despite what the scoreboard says.

On Tuesday, he saw the answer during practice.

“What I saw today is that they accepted that challenge,” Mora said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “We are measuring ourselves against ourselves, against our potential, our standard, our work ethic and our commitment. People always talk about the process, if you can’t do that and are always looking at the result on the scoreboard… it can become really debilitating for you.”

Mora said there was a different energy at practice, encouraging after the lopsided losses to Syracuse and Michigan.

“I have been around a lot of football teams that have gone through tough stretches in my career, and teams usually go one way or the other," Mora said. "They either start to descend or they accept the challenge and start to ascend."

Keeping morale high will be the challenge of Mora and his staff over the coming weeks. UConn lost starting quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson in the first game and top two receivers Keelan Marion and Cam Ross are out.

Now, No. 1 running back Nate Carter is out with a shoulder injury for at least one week and possibly more. 

The injuries are forcing UConn to expose inexperienced players — including true freshmen such as quarterback Zion Turner and running back Victor Rosa of Bristol — to action during a challenging portion of the schedule. UConn opened with Utah State, a top 25 team last year, and the Huskies are in a stretch of three unbeaten Power Five teams. 

“With a young team and a new staff, it would have been wonderful if we could have maybe ramped it up,” Mora said. “But it is what it is, and we are not going to shy away from it. For me, I would rather look at it as an opportunity to go get better, to challenge ourselves, and to see where we are.”

With NC State looming on Saturday and a home game against Fresno State the following week, Mora is monitoring UConn's mental approach.

“The challenge is every single day and with every single thing that we do,” Mora said. “We are going to prepare for our opponent and learn NC State’s schemes and what they like to do, but we have to start with taking care of ourselves. That is the challenge, that is the process. In a situation that we are in, the most important thing to do is focus on ourselves to be the best that we can be every single day, and then we will see improvement.”

The last stretch of the schedule will present UConn with what should be more competitive games against opponents like FIU, Ball State, Boston College, UMass, Liberty, and Army.

For now, though, Mora is looking for progress  —  even in losses.

“That is why it is so important that the message comes back to being the best we can be,” Mora said. “Rather than measure ourselves against the scoreboard, because it can get out of hand. Then it becomes such a burden, that is why I loved their energy (Tuesday).”

Mora added, “Losers let their circumstance dictate their effort and their attitude. Winners don’t. Building that mindset into these players, that to me is what it looks like. That is what we are going to do. Every single person on this campus that touches this program has to rise to a level, or else we will not win.”

Mora has continually praised his players throughout camp and over the first few weeks of the season, calling this perhaps the most hungry team he has coached in his career that spanned the NFL and UCLA.

So it's not a difficult team to motivate because the experienced players have led by example.

“That is one of the things I keep talking about with this group that is encouraging to me,” Mora said. “They stay focused. I have to continue to present a consistent message to them each week, but guys like Jackson Mitchell, Ian Swenson, Christian Haynes, Jake Guidone, Durante (Jones), Eric (Watts) and Dal’mont (Gourdine), they are not going to let this team lose focus and get off the rails. These guys are men, they have integrity, and this is important to them.”

Mora calls himself a glass-is-half-full guy. His energy and enthusiasm has made an impression on players, but the past few games could be demoralizing. 

But Mora believes his players are growing from the experience.

“There has been disappointment, but I am not discouraged at all,” Mora said. “The reason I am not discouraged is because I get to see these guys at practice every day, I know their character and what they are made of, and I know how they are weathering the storm. There is nobody that is putting their tail between their leg and running for cover. If we had that I would be discouraged.”