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Dom Amore: When they needed fury all the UConn football team did was fall embarrassingly flat

EAST HARTFORD — Maybe doom is too strong a word, but there was something in the air as UConn warmed up for its home football game Saturday.

And it wasn’t something good. It wasn’t electricity, wasn’t anticipation. The stands at Rentschler Field were not full, nor half full, and there didn’t look like more than a trickle of fans drifting in.

When it was time for those fans (20,405 tix distributed) to trickle out a few hours later, maybe in a little better mood – they were rewarded with an entertaining second half – about the only thing left to anticipate was basketball season.

Second half comeback falls short as UConn football loses to FIU, 24-17

It was nothing like the atmosphere 2 1/2 weeks ago when the season opened against NC State. That now seems like a distant memory, almost as distant as last season’s stirring wins. UConn fans have been hardened by a decade plus of rarely competitive football that the more optimistic among us believed had come to an end last season.

They’re skeptics and their trust is not easily earned and can be lost in a week. The Huskies drubbing at Georgia State last week was not to be an outlier, and folks around here seemed to sense it.

That the Huskies of 2023 are not a very good team, and now that they are 0-3 and unlikely to match the encouraging results of Jim Mora’s first season, was the suspicion and their 24-17 loss to Florida International added further emphasis.

Yes, after falling three touchdowns behind, the Huskies played much better in the second half, staged a desperate rally and had a chance to catch their opponent in the waning seconds, but in the end, the trees on the horizon around Rentschler have not even begun to change color, and already this once promising autumn appears to be turning to winter.

“I will not let this program descend to what it was,” Mora said. “I promise our fans that. I promise our student body that, I promise our athletic director that. I promise these players that. I will not let that happen. That may be hard to believe right now, because we’re sitting here 0-3, but we’re going to get this thing figured out.”

What was shocking was that UConn came out so flat with its season squarely on the line. That is not easily explained. If the Huskies didn’t come out with their helmets on fire this week, when would they?

FIU drove 75 yards on six plays with the opening kickoff and punched it right in, the Huskies’ defense gashed and carved up with disquieting ease. “Terribly disappointed,” was Mora’s refrain for the way UConn began this game.

And though UConn put a response drive together, it settled for a field goal and little was seen of the offense again in the first half. Ta’Quan Roberson couldn’t complete downfield passes or move the ball any more effectively than Joe Fagnano could before his injury. Zion Turner remains the only quarterback who has won a game in the Mora-Nick Charlton era, and the old saw still applies. When you have two (or three) quarterbacks in close competition, you still need a quarterback.

Those who stuck it out for long enough booed the team off the field at halftime, with the Huskies’ trailing 24-3. They booed a little more when the Huskies had some momentum, but Roberson fired the ball … off a referee’s hip. They booed some more when they punted from midfield late in the third quarter, still down 14.

UConn beat FIU on the road last year, as the Panthers rebuild was just beginning under coach Mike MacIntyre. The Panthers (3-1) are ones who have since reloaded, and looked like a different program Saturday, with too much speed for UConn. But why? They lost their opener to Louisiana Tech, struggled to beat Maine, 14-12, in their second game, then won a shootout against North Texas. Does that sound like a resume that a UConn team, expected to be so bolstered by the transfer portal, couldn’t match?

Apparently, at the start. Though UConn’s defense made some stops, they twice let FIU receivers get behind the secondary for over-the-top touchdown passes of 45 and 64 yards from Keyone Jenkins.

That proved too much to overcome and drained most of the good will from Rentschler, where the second half began in virtual silence, and it won’t be easy to get it back. Maybe Duke’s mere presence will bring out the more ferocious side of UConn fans next week.

If the loss at Georgia State gave aid and comfort to those who believes UConn doesn’t belong in a power conference, this one will bring back the “drop-football” crowd, quieted for a time by Mora’s first-year success. The university’s investment in football so desperately needs this Mora era to work. Maybe it still will, but UConn football again looks lost in the wilderness and even he, with his vast store of coaching and motivational tools, from tough love, to gentle prodding, to the quiet soul searching he demanded on the flight home from Atlanta, will have to reach deeper into his bag of messages.

Mora didn’t believe in moral victories, and certainly none can be claimed against FIU. The Huskies didn’t quit, something to be said for that, but they’re are back to stacking defeats.

“Words don’t matter,” Mora said. “Actions matter, and our actions have not been good enough to win football games.”

Investing in a football program can drag one through a series of emotions, but did any UConn fans think they would be looking back with empty longing for 2022 already? Already asking, “gee, wasn’t that cool?” Those who stayed away from East Hartford on Saturday must’ve sensed that. There’s always last year.