First-year UConn football head coach Jim Mora only allows his team 24 hours to celebrate a win or dwell on a defeat.
Before the season Mora talked with the team about handling adversity and after they jumped out to a 14-0 lead over Utah State in the opener, which was blown quickly, he went into more depth on how to handle success. Sunday was the day to enjoy the program’s first win over an FBS team in over 1,000 days (Oct. 26, 2019 vs. UMass). Once Monday came, the attention and focus was turned away from beating Fresno State and toward the Huskies’ upcoming game at Florida International.
“It’s a feeling when you’ve been working for something for so long, and when it finally happens and when it comes to be, it’s just, ‘Okay, we knew this was gonna happen, now the time is here,’” said defensive lineman Sokoya McDuffie, a redshirt junior who transferred from Old Dominion. “Coach Mora always talks about, ‘We know what happens when we’re down, but what happens when we do succeed? How do you handle that?’”
McDuffie, who often rotates with Jelani Stafford at the left tackle position, contributed a tackle in a defensive performance that held 23-point favorite Fresno State to just 14 points, seven of which came against the special teams unit on an 87-yard punt return score.
Now four-point favorites, on the road, for the first time since that last FBS win over UMass in 2019, the Huskies hope to show they can handle success well in a winnable game.
At the start of practice Tuesday, when the players were doing positional work before team drills began, Mora noticed a different “we can do this” type of energy.
“You need that,” Mora said. “They need to believe in themselves, they need to feel that hard work and then making some plays, that allows you to feel that. It’s all about backing it up. If you don’t go out there and you don’t play to a higher level than you did last Saturday – man, we can’t be one-hit wonders. I don’t like the one-hit wonders, we’ve got to build something here.”
“It’s a mindset,” McDuffie said. “You can’t win a war in a day.”
The team could’ve easily been beaten down and discouraged after getting walloped by three straight ranked teams in No. 22 Syracuse, No. 4 Michigan and No. 14 North Carolina State. Instead, it has bought in to what Mora is trying to build, picked up what he’s put down, and looks forward to a much less daunting next six games.
“I feel like we’ve all been the same,” McDuffie said. “And that’s what I love about this team, no matter whether we’re up or whether we’re down, we all come here with the same attitude. We practice everyday the same, we practice, and we practice and we practice and we practice. And we’re trying to show everybody that no matter what happens, we’re going to give them 100%.”
Toughing it out
Jackson Mitchell, UConn’s defensive star at the linebacker position, made eight tackles against Fresno State, but his most important play was the sack that sealed the game. Bulldogs quarterback Logan Fife dropped back to pass on third-and-9 with less than two minutes to go in the game. About three seconds later, Mitchell had dominated the running back attempting to block him and swallowed Fife to force a fourth-and-long situation.
Mitchell came out of the three-game onslaught beaten up and challenged. On Tuesday, Mora shared that Mitchell has been playing all season with a navicular fracture and had surgery that put a screw in his thumb in April or May.
“The navicular is the smallest bone in your body I guess and it doesn’t get much blood supply so it heals slowly,” Mora said. “They had to go and put a screw in there and they weren’t able to take it out because it hadn’t healed well enough by the time the season started. So he said, ‘Okay, you put a brace on it and I’m gonna go.’ You’ve got to really respect that.”
The junior from Ridgefield also dealt with a minor thigh contusion earlier in the season.
The Huskies’ leading tackler in 2021, Mitchell is off to another outstanding start. He ranks second in the FBS in total tackles with 66, and is No. 7 in tackles per game with 11.
“He takes every snap, he never comes out. He’s on punt, he’s involved with special teams, and he’s just got that warrior spirit – he’s just not gonna be denied,” Mora said.
After the NC State game when Mitchell didn’t play as well as he is capable of playing, he told Mora that he just didn’t have the energy – the first time Mora ever heard him say it. The Huskies were mindful of that last week in practice, giving him an opportunity to recover and allow him to enter the Fresno State game with his typical, boundless energy.
Keelan Marion back in pads
Keelan Marion expected to build off his 2021 season when he led the Huskies in receiving, but suffered a broken collarbone in the season opener at Utah State. He had surgery, which put a plate on the bone, and is on track to make it back on the field before the end of the season.
The receiving corps has struggled without him, and without other top wideout Cam Ross. Marion, a 6-foot vertical threat who shines at high-pointing balls and in the red zone, was in pads during practice Tuesday – a positive sign for his recovery. He wore a red, no-contact jersey while working out on the cardio bikes, performing blocking drills and stand-still catches off to the side.
“It was sure good to see him out there,” Mora said. “He only participated in individual work and he’ll be non-contact, but I don’t know that it’s not going to be sooner than I thought. I was really encouraged, it was great to see him out there. But we have to make sure that bone is 100% healed, we’re not going to put him out there unless he is absolutely ready to go.”