EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — It could have been one team’s signature win. And it could have unfolded to become a demoralizing loss for another.
Yet for another week, this year’s Michigan team kept itself out of any conversations with the words “Appalachian State" and "upsets."
The Wolverines staved off a near upset for the second straight week Saturday at Rentschler Field with a 24-21 win at Connecticut, a week after holding off Akron on the last play of the game. Michigan rallied from a 14-point deficit to tie the game on Fitzgerald Toussaint’s second touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and Brendan Gibbons’ 21-yard field goal with 4:36 left allowed the Wolverines to win.
"We just kept fighting, just like we always work on, knowing we’d finish the game," Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner said. "The defense fought hard, and the offense did enough to pull out the victory."
The No. 15 Wolverines floundered through the final minutes of the first half and continued to struggle on offense after halftime. Trailing 21-7, Gardner’s option pitch to Toussaint set up the running back’s 35-yard touchdown run with 5:37 left in the third quarter, which brought the Wolverines within a touchdown of the Huskies.
"Devin read that very well," said Toussaint, who led all rushers with 120 yards on 29 carries.
Despite outgaining the Huskies 289 to 206, the Wolverines turned the ball over five times - including Gardner’s fumble early in the fourth quarter, which set up Connecticut’s third touchdown - and that number prompted Toussaint made a declaration.
"We’ve got to play better in our end," Toussaint said.
Early in the fourth quarter, Gardner fumbled the ball, recovered but fell short of a first down at the UConn 22 on fourth down. But the Huskies didn’t capitalize.
But with his team down 21-14, Desmond Morgan intercepted a UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer pass and set up Toussaint’s second touchdown to tie it at 21 with less than 10 minutes left.
Aided by a pass-interference call, Gardner went straight up the middle for 17 yards on third and 12 and beat a two tacklers to give Michigan (3-0) a 7-0 lead with less than two minutes left in the first quarter.
But on a drive that bridged the first and second quarters, Gardner had a combined loss of 20 yards on two plays — losing 17 yards on a rushing play and then sacked at the end of the quarter for a loss of four, forcing Michigan to punt.
UConn thought it had tied it but officials waved off Geremy Davis’ touchdown catch after it was reviewed to determined he did not control the ball. But later on third and goal from the UM 11, Whitmer connected with Spencer Parker to tie the game with 3:54 left in the half.
On Michigan’s next possession, Byron Jones picked off Gardner and the Huskies elected to punt after a seven-play drive that ended at Michigan’s 49.
But Cole Wagner’s punt bounced off the leg of UM Da’Mario Jones and the fumble set up UConn at the Wolverines 9-yard line. Two plays later, Whitmer’s seven-yard TD pass to Lyle McCombs gave Connecticut a 14-7 lead with 1:56 left in the half.
Less than 90 seconds into the third quarter, Gardner committed Michigan’s second fumble, on third and 1. Ty-Meer Brown scooped up the loose ball and returned it 34 yards to give the Huskies a 21-7 lead.
With six minutes left in the third quarter, Toussaint rambled 35 yards to cut the deficit to 21-14.
UConn’s Chad Christen’s 45-yard field goal attempt with 1:14 left in the third was wide left.
After Toussaint’s second touchdown tied the game, Michigan got to the UConn 4 with five minutes left in the game, avoiding disaster after a fumble by Toussaint that the Wolverines recovered.
Gibbons booted the field goal with 4:39 left and UM survived after stopping UConn on its final possession.
"We contained them for a long time but not long enough," Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "Tonight was so much fun and such a great night for football. The fans were great, the stadium was great and the only thing that would have made it complete was the outcome."