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UConn collects four takeaways to stun Rice 38-31, winning first game of 2023 season

The Huskies erased an early 14-0 lead via fumble recoveries and the offense took control from there.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

When UConn kicked the ball off to Rice on Saturday evening, the Huskies were in a rather exclusive club they desperately needed to escape. Fresh off their first bowl appearance in six years, the Huskies trotted onto the field in Houston as one of three winless teams in the FBS, plagued with an 0-5 record.

Although it looked like those misfortunes would sustain after rapidly falling into a 14-0 hole, UConn climbed out with ease thanks to a pair of pivotal fumble recoveries. From that point on, the Huskies’ offense gained enough rhythm to put away Rice, 38-28, in the first-ever meeting between the geographically distant programs.

“Not to take anything away from their win, but I knew that for this to transpire, there would have to be events done by the Rice Owls to allow it to,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said.

Rice established complete control, offensively and defensively, from opening kickoff to the conclusion of the first quarter. After posting a combined 38 rushing yards over the past two weeks, the Owls emphasized jump-starting the running backs from the get-go. Sixth-year senior Juma Otoviano excelled in the first quarter with two rushing touchdowns, accruing 42 yards on his first three handoffs.

“That was cool to see Juma get touches that he did a lot with today,” Bloomgren said. “He looked like the old Juma of old. Two touchdowns in the first quarter alone, averaged 8.5 per carry. That’s a Juma we can win with... A more productive run game today, but what we care about is that number on the scoreboard.”

But when the second quarter commenced, two fatal turnovers decimated Rice’s 14-0 advantage. Backed deep into Rice territory, quarterback JT Daniels coughed up the ball when scrambling and UConn defensive tackle Jelani Stafford recovered. The 303-pound Stafford was inserted into the lineup for a rushing touchdown several plays later, albeit a blocked extra point ensued. In addition to a fumble recovery, the two-way star finished with two rushing scores on the night, increasing his season total to five.

“What we did at the start of the second quarter just gave them hope that they probably didn’t have and certainly didn’t have when we went up 14-0,” Bloomgren said. “That’s what you don’t want to give a team like that. You don’t want to give them any kind of belief. You want to step on their throat and end the game. That’s what we didn’t do today and we did some things that were a recipe to lose a game today.”

On Rice’s next drive after UConn denied the shutout, Daniels’ couldn’t connect with Braylen Walker on a lateral swing pass and the ball was instead scooped up by Huskies’ star inside linebacker Jackson Mitchell, who raced 50 yards the other way to trim the margin to 14-13.

“Momentum is a thing that’s hard to define sometimes,” Bloomgren said. “I do feel like we were struggling to get it back. We were struggling to see the game through one set of eyes in the passing game. At times, one set of eyes through the offensive line. Anytime you’re not seeing it the same, it’s real hard. We put a lot on our trigger puller. I think he’s really good, but when he has a couple series where he’s not seeing it well, it doesn’t bode well either.”

That momentum swing fueled by turnovers was more than enough to ignite UConn’s offense. After relying on Rice fumbles for their first two touchdowns, Ta’Quan Roberson and the offense finally created momentum for themselves. The quarterback sailed a deep ball into the end zone for his top target Cameron Ross, who secured it to claim a 20-14 advantage going into halftime.

“The way the defense came out today was strong,” inside linebacker Myron Morrison said. “What went wrong was the result of not responding to a sudden change. We can’t control what happens outside of what we do on the field, but at the end of the day, our job is to not let them get in the end zone. In those instances, we did not accomplish that.”

Although Rice’s defense forced a three-and-out on UConn’s opening third quarter drive, another crucial fumble dilapidated the Owls. The Huskies pounced on a muffed punt and utilized the advantageous field position to rewrite the scoreboard to 28-14. Rice fumbled the ball five times, and three were recovered by the visitors. UConn wound up winning the turnover battle 4-0 and generating 21 points from three fumble recoveries.

“I’ll never call a loss encouraging, but it was definitely a result of our self-inflicted wounds,” Morrison said. “Things that we can clean up ourselves and go forward and not make those mistakes again.”

UConn’s 28-0 run finally concluded when Daniels delivered an end zone strike to his top receiver Luke McCaffrey with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Rice’s defense couldn’t generate a stop down one score. UConn responded with a field goal to reclaim a two-possession lead, and Daniels once again led the troops down the field. He pierced through the UConn defense to deliver an impressive 30-yard touchdown strike to McCaffrey in what was a 100-yard performance by the AAC’s leading receiver.

But once again, the Owls’ defense was overwhelmed by UConn’s passing game, preventing Rice from completing a double-digit comeback. Roberson found tight end Justin Joly on an RPO slant, and the tight end slipped past a tackler en route to a 59-yard game-clinching score. Roberson finished the night with the most efficient performance of his career, completing 15-of-19 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

One week after losing a heartbreaker on a blocked extra point, UConn (1-5, Independent) can finally celebrate getting off the schneid. The Huskies recorded their first victory since last November, snapping a 7-game skid. In the long-awaited win, UConn also saw its highest-scoring effort since Oct. 26, 2019 when it defeated UMass 56-35.

Meanwhile, Rice (3-3, 1-1 AAC) was obstructed from its first 4-2 start since 2013 in its first home defeat of the season. Parallels can be drawn to last year when the Owls also watched a 3-2 record slide to 3-3 after squandering an early 14-0 lead to Florida Athletic, thanks to a turnover laden game. They’ll be given a bye week to regroup before battling Tulsa on the road in an AAC affair Thursday, Oct. 19.

“You certainly want to win going into a bye and have the momentum to build,” Bloomgren said. “But the thing I told the team in the locker room is, this is who we are. We are a 3-3 football team, just 1-1 in our conference with six games left. All conference games. We can win them all if we don’t do things to beat ourselves like we did today, and that’s factual.”