Keeping Score: UMass-UConn rivalry closes out football season

Published: 11-24-2023 2:00 PM

Modified: 11-24-2023 2:00 PM


Good morning!
Today’s UConn-UMass football game at McGuirk Alumni Stadium is a throwback to the days when the rosters were composed of players who came from New England schools, stayed four years and graduated on time.

Teams knew their place in college football’s world order, and players were happy to be big fish in a small bowl. UConn’s last game in I-AA was at UMass in 2000, and coach Mark Whipple’s Minutemen beat them 62-10.

Twelve years later UConn returned the favor by skunking the Minutemen 37-0 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, the first of 111 losses in the FBS compared to a meager 24 wins. Take a bow, John McCutcheon, for such an abominable failure to launch.

UMass leads the all-time series, 38-36-2, but UConn did its share of damage on Nov. 20, 1986, a day that was as blustery and cold as today. UMass was 8-2 and 5-1 in the Yankee Conference under first year coach Jim Reid. A win would give them the conference championship outright and put them in the I-AA playoffs, but UConn scored on its last possession to win, 20-17. The loss put UMass in a three-way tie for first place and bounced them out of the playoffs.

Afterward, UConn coach Tom Jackson said of winning and losing: “You’re either on top of the world or down with the whale turds.”

The Huskies are 2-9 this year and their two wins were against Rice and Sacred Heart. Coach Jim Mora, who’s in the second year of a five year, $8.5 million contract, told the Hartford Courant he’s stopped recruiting high school players. “We’re going to turn this program around and we’re going to do it with portal kids. We’re going to attack the portal and we’re going to attack junior college and bring players in that can produce.”

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Mora said he wanted players like Ronnie Lott who played for his father Jim Mora Sr. with the 49ers. An All-America defensive back at USC, Lott started all but three of 192 games in his 14-year career. After his pinkie finger was crushed in a game, Lott chose to have it amputated and not surgically repaired so he could get back on the field sooner.

UMass (3-8) is seeking its best FBS record since 2018 when it was 4-8 under Whipple. The Minutemen are 2.5-point underdogs and the over/under is 50.5 points. A win would be bittersweet because it would make them bowl eligible if not for losses to Eastern Michigan on a 50-yard touchdown pass with 1:40 left, and to New Mexico in overtime.

Today’s season finale kicks off at noon. The winner will be on top of the world and we all know where the loser will land.

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In the Lone Star State last month, Northfield’s Chloe Rourke helped West Texas A&M win the Stock Horse of Texas World Championship in Abilene. The Buffaloes beat teams from Texas A&M, Texas Tech and seven other schools.

Rourke, who was sixth overall in the top non-professional division, is the daughter of Jamie and Dr. Sarah Rourke and the granddaughter of former TFHS teacher Steve Kelley and Poppi (Yazwinski) Kelley.

Rourke rode her own horse, Luna, and never lost her cowboy hat.

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Mike Cadran reports that 118 WMass sports teams qualified for the MIAA’s fall tournaments in five sports and were a collective 96-115. Here’s the breakdown, volleyball teams were 32-30; girls’ soccer teams were 30-33 and the boys were 22-31. Field hockey teams were 7-11 and football teams were 5-11.

Western Mass. produced just two state champions, both in Division 5: the undefeated Mt. Greylock girls volleyball team (26-0) and the Monson girls’ soccer team (23-0-1).

“Aside from some travel distances involved, the ranking system seems to work,” writes Cadran. “I still prefer the old regional playoffs, there was more interest, less travel, and it guaranteed a Central-Western rep in finals.”

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Former UMass hockey player Cal Kiefuk is playing his grad year at Providence and assisted on the Friars’ only goal last Saturday. UMass scored to tie it late and won in overtime. The start of the third period was delayed after a Providence player cut an artery in his arm and was rushed to the hospital. 

Play couldn’t resume until the ambulance returned. Kudos to the radio announcers for informing listeners of the holdup, but those at the game didn’t have a clue. They did, however, get to hear the full version of Bohemian Rhapsody and see fans gyrate and disrobe for the in-house camera.

“I thought they’d play Shake Rattle and Roll,” said Chicopee’s Ed Polchlopek Jr., referring to the Springfield Indians theme song at the Big E Coliseum. “That was the best hockey song ever.”

A former UMass hockey captain in the 1960s, Polchlopek won the 1979 Mass. Amateur Golf Championship at the Vesper Country Club in Tyngsboro, “A good old Donald Ross course,” he said.

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Same ole, same ole for the UMass basketball team, judging by last week’s overtime loss to Harvard. The Crimson did not win it, the Minutemen gift-wrapped it to them by going 10-for-25 at the charity stripe. The loss portends another winter of discontent for long suffering UMass hoops fans —  same losing record, same transient players, same small crowds.

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New York sports talkmaster Mike Francesca thinks Bill Belichick and Justin Hebert are made for each other. ”He walks in, they win automatically,” said Francesca, who thinks Patriots fans are giving Belichick a bad rap. “Who could give a fan base more than Bill Belichick has given New England? How could anybody in their right mind treat him badly? He should go out as a conquering hero, what he did will never be equaled.”

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The Amherst College men’s soccer team is in the D-3 Final Four and will play Washington & Lee in Salem, Va., on Dec. 1. An Amherst alum offers his thoughts: “They have an excellent program that is universally hated by the rest of D3 soccer. Apparently they are very physical and the coach is just despised by the rest of the league. The vitriol is pretty intense on the D3 soccer boards.”

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SQUIBBERS: If memory serves, Bill Phelps recalls the ’63 Turkey Day game was moved to a Saturday “because of the Kennedy assassination. It was my junior year. Billy Bush was a sophomore quarterback; myself, Tom Suchanek and Norm Macleod were in the backfield. GHS 40, TF 20.” … Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada used a burner phone to go on social media anonymously and blame quarterback Kenny Pickett for the Steelers shortscomings. Canada got his walking papers this week and the onus is on Pickett to produce. … Larry Brooks in the NY Post: “Gary Bettman’s preseason lecture to coaches about tamping down public criticism of officials has given referees license for gross incompetence woven into extreme arrogance.”… Thirty-nine years ago this week BC beat Miami, 47-45, when Doug Flutie dropped back to his own 37-yard line and heaved a pass 63 yards into the end zone. “Caught by Boston College!” yelled Brent Musburger. “I don’t believe it! It’s a touchdown!” .… Hockey East officials don’t like skaters tying the puck up along the boards. It’s boring, which is why referee Terry Philbin yelled to UMass-Providence players, “Dig it out! Dig it out! Dig it out, boys!” … Staying: Aaron Nola in Philadelphia after signing a seven-year deal worth $172 million. Going: Dino Babers after a 41-55 record in eight seasons at Syracuse. … The New Mexico State Aggies are 9-2 since they lost to UMass 41-30 in the season opener. Last week’s 31-10 win at Auburn was their first-ever against an SEC opponent. … Anyone else noticed that “Return to the mean” has become the latest trendy expression used in the broadcast booth? … To no one’s surprise, opposing teams have taken to addressing Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce as “Mr. Swift.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com