EAST HARTFORD — From the time that Eli Thomas burst through the doors and surprised his UConn football teammates at a team dinner Friday night, there was only one way that the American Athletic Conference showdown the following day could end.
The Huskies, buoyed by the presence of a player who only a month earlier suffered a major stroke, had every intention of using that emotional surge to pick up the team’s first conference win of the season. The next step would have been to present the game ball to Thomas which has been the plan every week since the stroke ended Thomas’ junior season.
Visiting Southern Methodist had other ideas as the Mustangs never trailed in outlasting the Huskies 62-50 in a game featuring 10 touchdowns of at least 14 yards to spoil the Hollywood ending the Huskies planned to author.
Despite impressive games from senior quarterback David Pindell and sophomore running back Kevin Mensah, the Huskies lost their 14th straight game against Football Bowl Subdivision competition.
“I thought we left some points on the board on the first half, but I liked how we came back in the second half offensively and finished with touchdowns,” UConn coach Randy Edsall said. “Defensively it is the same thing, we have one guy breaking down and it is a big play. That has kind of been the story of the year for us. We had missed tackles and I thought the first half physically I thought we got it handed to us defensively. I thought we at least picked it up a little more physically in the second half but what we did is we missed assignments on running plays.”
Touchdown runs of 48 yards by Pindell and 19 by Mensah pulled UConn within eight points with 10:18 to play. SMU (5-5, 4-2 in the AAC) answered back with Ke’Mon Freeman’s 3-yard TD run and Kevin Robledo’s 30-yard field goal.
Pindell capped a historic day by throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Hergy Mayala with 36 seconds left to play.
Pindell ran for 181 yards to become the first UConn quarterback to run for more than 1,000 in a season. He also threw for 215 yards with all four of his touchdown passes coming in the second half. Pindell now has 2,832 yards of total offense, the third best total in UConn history behind Dan Orlovsky’s marks of 3,444 in 2003 and 3,313 in 2004.
“It is a good thing to do something special with this program and be in the record book, but obviously the biggest thing for us is we wanted to win so you can’t be too happy about without getting a win,” Pindell said.
Mensah finished with 181 rushing yards. Aaron McLean led the Huskies with seven receptions while Tyler Davis and Kyle Buss had scoring receptions of 5 and 15 yards.
SMU’s Ke’Mon Freeman ran for 116 yards with three touchdowns, Xavier Jones had 133 rushing yards and two scores while Ben Hicks threw for 276 yards to move SMU within a game of being bowl eligible.
The reality is that while Thomas won’t appear in the box score, it was still a day for him to reunite with his teammates.
“I can’t believe the progress that he has made in such a short period of time,” Edsall said. “He’s still got a long way to go. It shows how much UConn means to him and how much football and his teammates mean to him for him to come down here. I wish everybody had his demeanor, his work ethic, his passion, his heart because we would probably be undefeated if we had guys like that.
“He is trying to do everything just to be involved in school in January but to have him here, I know it was inspiring to me and I hope it was inspiring to everybody else. Having seen that young man the day after it happened being in the hospital, seeing where he was then to where he is now, it is incredible.”
Pindell and Thomas were teammates at Lackawanna College and the two still share a special bond so it is no wonder why Pindell seemed to have an extra jump in his step after seeing Thomas again.
“He surprised us last night at team dinner, everything looked normal,” Pindell said. “He was walking fine, talking and it was good to see a smile on his face again knowing that he just had a stroke a month ago. Normally a lot of people don’t come back from strokes after a month but he looks good.
“Tough guy. We always knew he could fight. He has been through a lot, he’s had [three] ACL inury and had a stroke. It shows that he is a really tough guy and without a doubt I think he will be back into football by the next semester or back in class.”
UConn quarterback David Pindell (5) runs the ball in for a touchdown in the first half against SMU on Saturday.