Jim Mora ‘righted the ship’ at UConn as UMass football prepares for visit

  • Connecticut quarterback Zion Turner (11) drops back to pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Boston College at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (Jessica Hill/Hartford Courant via AP) Jessica Hill

Staff Writer
Published: 11/3/2022 5:47:44 PM

AMHERST – The football programs at UMass and UConn found themselves in strikingly similar positions after the 2021 season. Both were 1-11 and in need of new leadership. They took big swings at potentially program-changing coaches.

The Minutemen brought back Don Brown on a five-year deal worth $700,00 per year. The Huskies hired former UCLA and Atlanta Falcons head coach Jim Mora with a four-year contract that will pay him $1.5 million this year and increase $100,000 per year.

The dividends are already showing for UConn (4-5), which has won three out of its past four games ahead of Friday’s 7 p.m. matchup with UMass (1-7) at Rentschler Field in East Hartford (CBS Sports Network).

“The rivalry wasn’t something that was talked a lot about, but it just makes sense. It’s Connecticut and Massachusetts. I mean what are we, 26 miles from the border here?” Mora said. “It’s only natural for a guy that, even coming from as far away as I did, you know this is important.”

The Huskies can become bowl eligible if they win two of their final three games against the Minutemen, Liberty and Army.

“They’ve done a good job and righted the ship,” Brown said. “Struggled early and played some tough teams early. The one thing is they’ve been able to, you know, maintain some stability at quarterback, which is a big deal. After their first guy got hurt, that sent them into a little bit of a tailspin but obviously when you have the same guy week in and week out playing quarterback for you, that certainly helped.”

UConn starter Ta’Quan Roberson tore his ACL in the season opener against Utah State, but freshman Zion Turner has stepped in and thrown for 963 yards and eight touchdowns with just four interceptions.

Linebacker Jackson Mitchell is a Butkus Award semifinalist for the best linebacker in college football. He’s second in the nation with 100 total tackles. The Ridgefield, Conn., native has six tackles for a loss, 4½ sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

The Huskies are coming off their first-ever win over Boston College, a 13-3 slugfest at home.

“They just kept playing. I’m sure there’s things offensively that they would have liked to have seen go their way a little bit better, but at the same time, they just kept playing the game,” Brown said. “Sometimes that’s all you need to do is just stay in the foxhole, keep fighting, and good things happen. And at the end of 60 minutes, look up and see what the scoreboard is.”

UMass hasn’t received the same return on investment yet. The Minutemen have lost five games in a row and are eliminated from bowl contention. 

They’ve started three quarterbacks and used four.

The defense has held opponents to 25 points per game over its last six, a marked jump from the 42 and 55 they gave up against Tulane and Toledo, respectively, to open the year. Their passing defense is 36th nationally allowing 204.5 yards per game. That’s less than four yards more than Alabama allows.

But UMass’ offense has scored just 10.5 points per game over the same stretch and never more than 24 against Liberty. The Minutemen have scored more than one offensive touchdown just once in a game (also against the Flames).

“You don’t bargain the type of game you get. You do what you got to do to win the game. It’s really what it comes down to. It’s not like well, you know, we’re gonna get this many points in this one. Whatever you got to do, you got to do and you can’t cry about it. You just do,” Brown said. “Obviously the big thing for us is continuity and trying to play some football that’s give and take, and I can tell you right now coach (offensive coordinator Steve) Casula’s working real hard with it. The offensive staff are in there banging away trying to figure out ways to get the thing going again.”

UMass prevailed in the teams’ previous meeting last year behind a standout secondary and a historic workload from running back Ellis Merriweather. The Minutemen lead the all-time series, which was just extended annually through 2027, 38-35-2. The programs have split four FBS meetings, 2-2.

“I’ve been in three rivalry games, and I’ve never lost one. I know how UConn feels about us and I know how we feel about UConn. We hate them. They hate us. It is what it is,” said UMass defensive lineman Marcus Cushnie, who previously played at Florida State and Alabama A&M. “This week, everything’s on the line. We all trying to get this W so it means a lot to us.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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