PAT EATON-ROBB, AP College Football Writer
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut got a boost in confidence on Saturday night. Not enough, however, to prevent the school’s worst start in a dozen years.
The Huskies couldn’t hold a 14-point second-half lead and lost to No. 15 Michigan 24-21, falling to 0-3 for the first time since 2001.
“We played well, but it’s a 60-minute game and you have to play for 60 minutes,” safety Obi Melifonwu said. “Everyone thought we were going to get blown out. We proved to everybody that we can play with anyone in the country.”
Chandler Whitmer threw two touchdown passes and Ty-Meer Brown returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter that put UConn (0-3) up 21-7.
The Huskies, who lost their first two games decisively to Towson, a FCS team, and Maryland, led much of this one and were tied with Wolverines (4-0) until Brendan Gibbons kicked a 21-yard field goal with 4:36 left.
“We contained them for a long time, but not long enough,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said.
Quarterback Devin Gardner turned the ball over three times and the Wolverines also muffed a punt inside their 10 that led to a UConn touchdown. Fitzgerald Toussaint carried the offense with 120 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
Toussaint broke a 35-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and scored from 12 yards out right after linebacker Desmond Morgan’s one-handed interception with 9:56 left.
Gardner finished 11 for 23 for 97 yards. He ran for 64 yards and a 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter. But his defense had to bail him out, specifically Morgan.
After star Connecticut linebacker Yawin Smallwood stopped Gardner short on a fourth-and-2 at the Huskies 22 with 11:23 left in the fourth quarter, the record crowd of 42,704 at Rentschler Field was rocking and starting to believe an upset was in the making.
But Morgan returned the interception 29 yards and one play later Toussaint swept untouched around the left side to make it 21-21 with 9:49 left.
“We made plays as a defense, but they just stole this game from us,” said Smallwood, who had 13 tackles and a sack.
Michigan forced a three-and-out on the next series and got the ball back around midfield, but its drive stalled at the 4 and Gibbons made the short kick to give Michigan a three-point lead with 4:36 left.
UConn’s last drive never had a chance. Michigan pushed the Huskies backward and then they came up a few yards short on a fourth-and-29.
UConn, playing without leading receiver Shakim Phillips, managed only 206 yards, 159 passing from Whitmer.
“Coming into this game, we knew defense was going to have to win this game,” Smallwood said. “We take pride in that.”
Michigan had three turnovers in the first half that helped give UConn a 14-7 lead. Turnover No. 4 came on its first possession of the second half and put the Wolverines in a deep hole. Gardner tried to sneak on a third-and-short, but as he slid down the line, he bumped into one of his linemen and the ball popped loose.
Brown picked up the ball and had a couple of teammates escort him into the end zone for a 21-7 lead less than 2 minutes into the half.
Michigan finally responded with a drive, going 75 yards, the final 35 by Toussaint who made it 21-14 with 5:37 left in the third.
The Maize and Blue’s visit to Rentschler Field was a major event in these parts. Former UConn basketball stars Kemba Walker and Ray Allen made the trip and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who grew up in Michigan and almost played for the Wolverines, also took in the game from the athletic director’s box.
“UConn wants to build its program,” said American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco, who was at the game. “They have done a remarkable job over 10 years and want to build its program. These are the kind of games that will help it get there, win or lose and ultimately, that’s the goal.”
On the field, though, the Huskies didn’t appear to be in any condition to challenge Michigan, at least without help, and Michigan gave it to the Huskies.
Gardner threw a first-quarter interception deep in UConn territory. He redeemed himself later with a 17-yard touchdown run to give Michigan a 7-0 lead with 1:52 left in the first. UConn ended the quarter with one first down.
But Michigan couldn’t take advantage as the Huskies’ offense sputtered, and the Huskies tied it at 7 with 3:54 left in the half when Whitmer found Spencer Parker, a former walk-on, for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
The third Michigan turnover of the half, a bouncing punt that hit off the leg of Da’Mario Jones while he was looking the other way, gave UConn the ball at the Wolverines 9 and two plays later Whitmer floated a 7-yard TD pass to Lyle McCombs that put the Huskies up 14-7.
Gardner didn’t complete a pass in the second quarter and for the second straight week Michigan looked disjointed against a heavy underdog.
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