Lou Spanos: Energy, desire to improve still there for UConn football despite blowout loss to Middle Tennessee State

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After a string of competitive games, the UConn football team fell back Friday, routed by Middle Tennessee State, 44-13.

But interim coach Lou Spanos, relentlessly encouraging through this 1-8 season, still sees players who work and play like it matters.

“One thing I take pride in as a coach is being a realist,” Spanos said Sunday. “And I have a feel for the locker room. Everything was there. Even though we lost, the energy was there. We were saying, ‘Mmm, we let that one go. I’ve got to get better.’ When I say ‘I,’ I mean all of us. And that’s why I take great pride in our team and what we’re trying to accomplish. They know it wasn’t good enough, and we’re going to get better.”

Spanos, his staff and the current Huskies roster have three more games to salvage something from the season, but first a two-week bye that will mean 22 days between the Middle Tennessee State game and the next game, at Clemson on Nov. 13.

“I’ve had two weeks of byes throughout my career,” said Spanos, 50, who has spent most of his coaching career in the NFL. “But two weeks consecutive, that’s a first. That’s where you have to be creative and make sure the players are fresh. Mentally and physically, the players have got to take a break for a moment.”

The plan is a light week of work, with emphasis on fundamentals, then next week a normal drill-down on the opponent. It’s not a typical year for Clemson, a perennial national championship contender. The Tigers are 4-3, 3-2 in the ACC after their loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday. Still, they will likely be favored by multiple touchdowns vs. UConn. The Huskies are receiving $1.2 million to play this game in South Carolina.

There would be more interest if this game brought a sibling rivalry with its starting quarterbacks, but UConn’s Tyler Phommachanh, who injured a leg Oct. 2, will not be back for this game. His brother Taisun Phommachanh made a remarkably fast comeback from an Achilles injury and has played in three games for Clemson. Against Pitt, he rushed twice for 17 yards and completed 3 of 7 passes for 23. The Phommachanh brothers are from Stratford and both played at Avon Old Farms.

“I don’t see [Tyler] coming back for the Clemson game,” Spanos said. “Right now, we’re focusing on Clemson, and he won’t be there for Clemson.”

There is much to clean up following the loss to Middle Tennessee State. The Huskies tied the score 10-10 early in the second quarter but were routed from there, possessing the ball only 7 1/2 minutes of the second half. MTSU picked up 30 first downs, threw for 318 yards and accumulated 473 yards in offense.

UConn allowed quarterback Chase Cunningham to escape pressure repeatedly, and he then burned them with big running or passing plays.

“I feel like middle of second quarter we were doing well,” Spanos said, “but then, in the three phases, we had to be more consistent. There were breakdowns on the defensive side, too long of drives, lost contain[ment], not staying on the coverage, a lot of missed tackles. On offense, we had a lot of dropped balls, did a poor job of finishing blocks, finishing runs, and on special teams we’ve got to be more consistent.”

After being outscored 132-28 the first three games, UConn was alive until the last play against Wyoming and Vanderbilt, was in the game until late at UMass and beat Yale.

“We’re going to get better, for each other and for ourselves,” Spanos said. “The energy is there. You wish you could have made more plays, more plays in the second half.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com.

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