UConn favored over UMass in battle of winless teams: ‘We’re really coming together’

Photo of Mike Anthony

The UConn football team will make a 50-mile bus trip north Saturday to the scene of its most recent postgame celebration.

It’s been 714 days since the Huskies left a football field and let loose in a locker room, doing so on Oct. 26, 2019 at McGuirk Alumni Stadium after a 56-35 victory over UMass.

UConn has played just 10 games since, losing each of them, but the two years separating that victory from the team’s best chance at another have felt like a lifetime.

Now the turbulent run through one canceled season and into another that saw the program bottom out under Randy Edsall brings the Huskies back into something it should feel confident about: the ability to defeat a neighbor that has endured equal struggles.

UConn (0-6) and UMass (0-5) trying to get out of the quicksand with a 3:30 p.m. kickoff in Amherst, Mass. It’s the UGame. It’s a matchup the nation will surely mock, and a matchup two New England flagship state university teams can embrace.

“It’s just another game,” said UConn senior tight end Jay Rose, who has been with the program parts of six years, under three different coaches. “Week in and week out, that’s it, we’re looking to go 1-0. We don’t look behind. We don’t look ahead. What we’ve got on Saturday, it doesn’t matter what the team is, who they are to us. We’re just going out there looking to get our first win. I think you see it’s coming together. It’s really coming together.”

UConn has shown some life, at least, in narrow losses the past two weeks to Wyoming (24-22) and Vanderbilt (30-28). The Minutemen, over that span, have been demolished — 53-3 at No. 15 Coastal Carolina and 45-7 at home against Toledo.

UMass has lost 16 games in a row. The team, 1-11 in 2019, lost four 2020 spring games by a combined score of 161-12. So far this season, the Minutemen have been outscored 236-73.

UConn, which was equally outclassed through four games as the program transitioned from Edsall to interim coach Lou Spanos, is a 3.5-point favorite.

More Information

UConn at UMass

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Where: McGuirk Alumni Stadium,Amherst, Mass.

Records: UConn 0-6; UMass 0-5

TV/Radio: NESN; ESPN 97.9 FM

Streaming: FloSports

Last meeting: UConn 56-35 on Oct. 26, 2019

The Huskies are halfway through a season that will funnel the program into another change, as the athletic department conducts a national search for the next coach. The team’s players, and departing coaches, are trying to make the most of what is available, what is next, whatever is possible. At the least, if interviews are a true guide, a rather miserable experience has become something moderately inspiring.

“Probably having the kids having fun, meaning that football is special, and memories,” said Spanos, who became emotional when asked about his experience through a month as head coach. “That’s first and foremost what I’m proud of. They’re smiling, they’re practicing and they’re playing hard in the games. So to me, that’s what we sign up for. And we want to win games, and we’re getting there. I think that’s the purest form. … It’s fun to interact and see people rise and be better.”

UConn’s first spark of the season came from mobile freshman quarterback Tyler Phommachanh, who was sharp against Army’s second unit and Wyoming’s first-teamers. A leg injury sidelined Phommachanh early against Vanderbilt, and UConn nearly pulled off an upset behind the competent play of redshirt sophomore Steve Krajewski, who rushed for a go-ahead touchdown with 1:07 remaining.

With Phommachanh out indefinitely, Krajewski will likely start against UMass. He will be charged with leading a reinvented offense of movement and the occasional trick play, an entertaining brand of football that led to 25 first downs and 531 yards last week but has yet to yield a victory.

That could happen this week. Maybe next week, too, when the Huskies play Yale at Rentschler Field. UConn hosts Middle Tennessee Oct. 22. If ever there was a time of opportunity, this three-week stretch is it. The season, and an era, closes with games against Clemson, Central Florida and Houston.

“We came together and just made sure that everybody on the team understood that this is going to go in the right direction and all the goals we set hadn’t changed,” Rose said. “We’re really coming together as a team. Everybody wants to win. I think (progress) is evident. You watch our games now. We’re competing for (60) minutes and, I’ll tell you, it’s a good time. It makes the games a lot more fun. It makes the games a lot more competitive. The thing that is so different is we’re doing as a unit.”

UConn and UMass are essentially unofficial business partners, trying to establish a rivalry worth paying attention to while finding their way as independent programs. Before the 2019 meeting in Amherst, UConn athletic director David Benedict and UMass AD Ryan Bamford held a joint press conference, expressing confidence in the path forward for each program.

Two years later, both are looking for something tangible as signs of growth.

“You talk about resolve, you talk about handling adversity well,” UMass coach Walt Bell told the Greenfield Recorder. “You talk about a group of guys that come in and swing the hammer at the stone every day, that’s our guys. Our guys practice unbelievably well. We’re going to keep doing what we do. If we keep swinging the hammer, the stone’s going to break.”

UMass won the 2018 meeting between these teams in East Hartford and leads the series 37-35-2.

The Minutemen are without lead running back Kay’Ron Adams, a Rutgers transfer who is out with “a pretty significant ankle injury,” Bell told the Recorder.

UConn’s depth chart is heavy with underclassmen. The program atmosphere is positive, Spanos said.

“They are a close team,” Spanos said. “It’s upbeat. They fly around. They talk. They communicate. Now it’s just you’ve got to do what we have to accomplish to get our win. … They are buying in with what we’re trying to do here. It can’t happen overnight, but we’re doing it the right way. You see the last two games. It’s stings, but we’re moving forward.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst