EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut tailback Lyle McCombs found out he would start against Fordham during warm-ups on Saturday, after it became apparent senior D.J. Shoemate had not fully recovered from a sprained ankle suffered earlier in the week during practice.
McCombs made the most of his opportunity.
The redshirt freshman rushed 24 times for 141 yards and four touchdowns, two in each half, leading the Huskies to a 35-3 rout of FCS foe Fordham.
“D.J.’s a little banged up, so we just pretty much saved him, because we are going to need our full running-back corps the rest of the season,” McCombs said. “He said basically, ‘Hey, this is your day, so make the most of it.’ He’s happy for me.”
UConn ran up 434 yards on offense and held Fordham to just 169 yards, while using all three quarterbacks who came into the game competing for the starting job.
“I thought it was a good start for us today,” said UConn head coach Paul Pasqualoni, who was coaching his first college game since leaving Syracuse in 2004. “Overall I thought our offensive line dominated and I thought our defensive line dominated. I thought we dominated up front, but we were expected to.”
UConn gave up just one big play, a 58-yard pass in the third quarter from freshman Peter Maetzold to Brian Wetzel that set up a 28-yard field goal, Fordham’s only score.
“This is the best team we’re going to play all year,” said Maetzold. “We fought; we fought every play, and I think we know we can do it when it comes time for Patriot League games.”
Junior Johnny McEntee started at quarterback for Connecticut, completing 8 of 12 passes for 113 yards. Freshman Mike Nebrich threw for 60 yards and redshirt freshman Scott McCummings spelled both of them, giving UConn an option-style change of pace. He threw just one pass, but it was a 55-yard touchdown strike to tight end Ryan Griffin in the second quarter that gave UConn a 21-0 lead. He also ran for 23 yards.
“You’d think it would be hard for us to keep a rhythm, but it’s actually kind of fun,” said McEntee. “I’m running in, he’s running out, it kind of makes the game more exciting for us.”
But it was McCombs who provided the bulk of the excitement. He had 122 yards rushing and a pair of 2-yard touchdown runs in the first half. His first capped a 58-yard first-quarter drive that was set up by a 24-yard pass from McEntee to Isiah Moore.
McCombs set up his second score himself with a 60-yard run off the left side. He also scored on a 5-yard pitchout and a 1-yard run up the middle in the third quarter.
“All it was was making the most of an opportunity,” he said. “The coaches were pretty much calling running-back favored plays on the goal line, so I pretty much knew it was coming.”
An interception by Byron Jones off a Sio Moore tip led to the scoring strike from McCummings to Griffin on the very next play, after the defense bit on a play-action fake. Griffin caught three balls for 97 yards and that score.
Maetzold was 12-of-25 for 149 yards with an interception for Fordham. But sophomore Griffin Murphy also played, occasionally lining up next to Maetzold as a halfback. He ran the ball six times for 17 yards and also threw an incomplete pass on an option play.
UConn kicker Dave Teggart tied the school’s scoring record on his fifth extra point of the game, giving him 259 points in his career.
The game was originally scheduled for Thursday, but was pushed back two days because the stadium was being used by the National Guard as a staging area to distribute supplies to those left without power in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.
Fordham, which was 5-6 a year ago, was playing its first major-college opponent since facing Syracuse in 1954. It had played the Huskies one other time, back in 1915, when it beat UConn 35-0.
Fordham began offering football scholarships last year and is not allowed to play for the championship of the Patriot League, in which schools are allowed to give aid only for financial need.
Fordham can still make the FCS playoffs, but only by earning an at-large bid.
“If we compete this hard and play this hard all year, I like our football team,” said Fordham coach Tom Masella.
Pasqualoni, a Cheshire native, spent the last six seasons in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys. He is now tied for the most wins by any Big East coach with 108. He was 107-59-1 during his 14 years with the Orange.
“I honestly could not tell you the number of wins,” Pasqualoni said. “For me and for the coaches it’s the opportunity to get the kids prepared to play a Division I football game, which is a hard thing to win, a hard thing to prepare for.”
It gets a bit harder next week, when the Huskies visit Vanderbilt.