UConn football improves to .500 with revenge win over UMass: What we learned

UConn coach Jim Mora  on the sidelines against North Carolina State during the first half  in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

UConn coach Jim Mora  on the sidelines against North Carolina State during the first half  in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

EAST HARTFORD — As the UConn football team took the field under the Friday night lights against UMass, memories of a difficult loss resurfaced for much of the Huskies roster. 

While the scars remained, there was an aura of confidence surrounding the program, which has hardly resembled that of last year's team. That confidence would be legitimized as UConn defeated UMass 27-10. 

For the first time since 2015, UConn (5-5) has a five-win season and is playing November football with a .500 record. Hopes of a bowl game has entered the realm of potential reality. 

"We're happy, but we are not satisfied. Getting to .500 was one of our goals," UConn coach Jim Mora said. "We have things that are still on our agenda and our guys are very motivated to do that."

Here are some takeaways from UConn’s win over UMass (1-8):

Welcome back Devontae Houston

After missing two games due to an ankle sprain, UConn running back Devontae Houston returned to game action and made his presence known on his first touch. 

On the Huskies' second drive in the first quarter, Zion Turner handed off to Houston who took the ball 75 yards into the end zone for his third score of the season and a 7-3 lead. 

"Once I saw the hole I just knew I had to hit it," Houston said. "Once I got that second level, I am gone. You're not catching me. Every time I touch the ball I am thinking explosive."

In his previous two games played against Fresno State and FIU, Houston surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark while playing through a shoulder sprain. 

"Every day I was working hard in treatment, some three times a day throughout the week. I was dying to get back," Houston said. "Not being on the field, not being able to contribute just hurts my heart. Every game I couldn't be out there I was thinking 'Man, I have to get back out there and help my boys.'"

Last week against Boston College, UConn accumulated only 107 yards on the ground as the defense carried the team to victory. 

In Friday's win over UMass, Houston accounted for 84 of UConn's 257 total rushing yards on seven carries. 

"Having Devontae (Houston) back was a big deal for us early," said Mora, whose Huskies host No. 23 Liberty (7-1 entering Saturday's game at Arkansas) next Saturday. "He tweaked his ankle but he should be okay. Thankfully he got some plays in before we get to next week, and I think he needed that for his confidence."

"I'm fine," Houston said. 

Running Game Stimulates Offense

For the first time since its 19-14 win over Fresno State, UConn did not score a touchdown on its opening drive. After a Jackson Mitchell fumble recovery set the Huskies up well into UMass territory, a quick six yards on three plays forced a field goal attempt. 

Noe Ruelas missed the 32-yard attempt, a window into how the UConn offense would struggle putting points on the board. 

Ruelas did rebound, knocking in his later two field goal attempts from 23 and 26 yards out along with three extra points to provide UConn with nine of its 27 points.

The Huskies would proceed to score on their next two drives thanks to the 75-yard rushing touchdown by Houston in the first quarter and Ruelas' first field goal to start the second quarter for a 10-3 lead. 

Ruelas would reclaim the UConn lead, 13-10, in the final minute of the first half on his second field goal. Each of the Huskies' five first half drives ended in UMass territory with just 13 points to show for it. 

"Devontae (Houston) broke the run, thankfully, that gave us a 7-3 lead," Mora said. "But it was not a good first half for us. One thing we did well in the first half was we had the lead."

After 137 rushing yards in the first half (54% of which came on Houston's touchdown rush), UConn continued to utilize the run game. 

"We are a team that has made our money running the football," Mora said. "We had a game against a team that has really been pretty good against the run and we were able to run it."

In the first half, the UConn offense gained 175 yards in total (137 rush, 38 pass), which was followed up by 159 yards of offense in the second half (137 rush, 22 pass). 

"Any time we can run the football the way we did, you will tend to have success," Mora said. "Our passing game is not where it needs to be, and it hasn't been all year. We are working hard on that."

On the day, true freshman quarterback Zion Turner completed 6-of-13 pass attempts for just 60 yards. 

While the yardage output was similar across both halves, the key difference for the offense in the latter half was its ability to cross the goal line, which it did twice. 

"We have been able to get the ball down there, but we haven't been able to create a whole lot of space in the end zone," Mora said. "We are working hard on it, we have to be able to find ways to get guys open and finish drives with the ball in the end zone rather than having Noe (Ruelas) out there because that comes back to get you. This is a game of touchdowns, field goals will get you beat."

On its third drive of the third quarter, UConn scored its second touchdown on a 5-yard rush by freshman Victor Rosa of Bristol.

"Coming out of halftime we just knew we needed to do our job to pick up and fix the energy," Rosa said. "That is what we did, we got the job done." 

It was the first of two touchdowns for Rosa, who broke into the end zone from 12 yards out with 6:54 in the fourth quarter to extend the UConn lead to 27-10. Rosa leads UConn with six touchdowns on the season. 

"Nobody treats him like a freshman, they never have," Mora said. "He doesn't act like he is a freshman. He is on this team, there are things that are expected of him and he has been able to rise up to it."

Rosa finished the game with a team-leading 87 rushing yards on 17 carries (5.1 yards per carry). Behind him, Robert Burns rushed for 59 yards on 10 carries. 

"This is one of the reasons that I came here, to make a change," Rosa said. "Coach Mora and the staff, the entire team, I love all of them. We are doing something special here and I can't wait for next week."

Defense Stays Strong

While the UConn defense only surrendered 10 points, for the fourth game in a row it allowed more yards than the Huskies' offense compiled. 

After allowing 259 passing yards in the program's first win over Boston College last week, UConn continued to struggle defending the air attack, allowing 266 passing yards to UMass quarterback Brady Olson. 

UMass was unable to amass much of a ground game however, totaling just 85 yards. The UConn defense has now allowed just 14.8 points per game over its last five matchups.  

"UMass has been outstanding running the football this year and they weren't really able to run it against us that well," Mora said. "When you control the line of scrimmage that way, you are going to have a chance to have success."

After allowing 220 total yards of UMass offense and 10 points in the first half, the defense rebounded to allow just 131 yards of offense to the Minutemen while shutting them out in the second half. 

"It was pretty ugly at times," Mora said. "I don't think we played up to our standard in the first half at all, in any phase of the game. We didn't have the energy we needed to continue to develop as a football team. Their defense drove the ball right down on us, and then we got the recovery by Jackson (Mitchell) and we go down and miss the field goal."

After providing a spark on the first drive of the game, Mitchell took it upon himself to re-energize his team at halftime with a slim 13-10 lead. 

"We knew we weren't playing up to our standard, we needed a spark man," Mora said. "Someone to just ignite it. Like he typically does, it was Jackson Mitchell. He is one of the more quiet guys on this team day in and day out, so when he opens his mouth and says something it carries a huge amount of weight."

The senior linebacker and Ridgefield native's halftime words seemingly contributed to positive results. 

"We came out in the second half with a lot better energy and that is the way we have to play," Mora said.

Mitchell recovered a fumble for the second game in a row. He also added eight tackles to bring his season total to 108. Sophomore defensive back Durante Jones led the team with 14 total tackles while also forcing a fumble and one pass break up. 

With a 27-10 lead in the final two minutes, Tre Wortham picked off an Olson pass for his team leading fourth interception of the season to put the game away. 

Up Next

Only two games remain on the schedule for UConn, bringing with them the welcomed pressure of a potential bowl game. 

UConn has a chance to win six games in a season for the first time since 2015 as it hosts No. 23 Liberty on Nov. 12. 

Liberty (7-1) will be UConn's fourth ranked opponent this season, as it lost to Syracuse, Michigan and NC State. Liberty's lone loss was to Wake Forest. 

"The key thing is that we are sitting at .500," Mora said. "It has been a while since we have been .500 here, and we have put ourselves in a position to really play for something special. We have a huge game a week from tomorrow against Liberty."

Following Liberty, UConn will finish the season at Army.