By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 21, 2013
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — For a long 23 minutes and 17 seconds of game time, the Michigan sideline had fallen surprisingly tense for the second week in a row. By the end of the first half, Michigan coach Brady Hoke crossed his arms and looked agitated. Devin Gardner lifted his helmet atop his head, his chinstrap obscuring a grimace as he trotted to the sideline after another turnover. Michigan would trail at the half to winless Connecticut, which had lost earlier this season to FCS Towson.
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The Wolverines had come within yards of being upset by lowly Akron the week before, and players and coaches said they had practiced with extra intensity this week. But by the third quarter, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon puffed his cheeks on the sideline and looked upward, his face showing concern. UConn took the lead into the fourth quarter.
For 23 minutes and 17 seconds, the Huskies outplayed Michigan and held the lead, which at one point extended to 14 points. Late heroics by junior linebacker Desmond Morgan, who made a one-handed interception in the fourth quarter, allowed Michigan to tie. A field goal by fifth-year senior Brendan Gibbons with 4:36 remaining won the game, 24-21. But for the second week in a row, Michigan just barely escaped from a team at the bottom of the FBS food chain.
“We’d rather not let it come to that,” said Gardner, the redshirt junior quarterback. “But if that what it takes on this day, we’re happy with the win.”
The close win over Akron was a reality check. But Saturday’s performance may have been closer to reality. UConn exposed major holes in this team as it heads into a bye week and Big Ten play: an offensive line that has hemorrhaged rushers and can’t control the line of scrimmage; a quarterback that leads the nation in turnovers by a significant margin; and a defense that can be beaten over the top.
“We all are trying to figure out where we’re at as a team,” Hoke said.
Michigan’s offense looked lost against the Huskies, and UConn wasn’t just winless entering the game. The Huskies lost by double digits to Towson and Maryland. They ranked worse than 100th in the nation in scoring offense, rushing offense and total offense. Same for rushing defense and total defense. They ranked 95th in scoring defense.
Under Hoke, Michigan has struggled on the road. At his Wednesday press conference earlier this week, Hoke said the reason was simple.
“Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers,” he said. “That’s what’s plagued our team.”
Michigan committed four turnovers against UConn. Three came from Gardner. On Michigan’s first drive of the second half, he fumbled on a quarterback sneak. UConn’s Ty-Meer Brown scooped it and scored to put the Huskies ahead 21-7. He also threw two interceptions. Gardner has now had a turnover returned for a touchdown in three straight games.
Gardner finished 11-of-23 for 97 yards and zero touchdowns passing. He also rushed for 64 yards on the ground (he lost 24 yards on sacks) with one touchdown.
“There’s a lot of learning going on,” Hoke said, referring to Gardner. “And there’s a lot that we put on his shoulders, and I think that he keeps learning every time he goes out.”
Earlier in the second quarter, UConn took a 14-7 lead after a punt hit freshman wide receiver Da’Mario Jones deep in Michigan’s own territory. UConn needed just two plays to convert the touchdown.
Michigan’s defense and the play of fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint kept the Wolverines in the game. With about 10 minutes remaining in the game and Michigan trailing by a touchdown, Morgan made his leaping one-handed interception and returned it to UConn’s 12-yard line.
Toussaint scored on the next play to tie the game. Toussaint had his best game of the season, rushing for 120 yards in 24 attempts with two touchdowns, both while Michigan trailed in the second half.
But Michigan’s offense again failed to establish the line of scrimmage. Hoke said the line improved late but still didn’t generate enough push. Most inside runs were doomed before Toussaint hit the hole.
And again, Michigan’s offense had to rely on Gardner’s legs. Michigan turned to the quarterback run multiple times on third and fourth downs. With 11:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, Michigan opted for a Gardner run once more on fourth-and-2, instead of a field goal. Michigan trailed by seven points, and had the ball on UConn’s 23-yard line.
The Huskies made the stop.