LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The junkyard dogs finally bit back.
The UConn defense, the ninth-ranked UConn defense, has spent this season playing as hard as any defense can play. But all they had to show for it was a 4-6 record and far too many close-but-no-cigar losses. Eventually, the law of averages finally had to turn the Huskies' way, right?
And in the biggest game of the season, it did.
Needing to win to keep its faint bowl eligibility hopes alive, going against a team ranked in the top 25 that was playing for a chance at the Big East championship, the Huskies put together another overwhelming defensive performance and this time pulled off the upset, beating No. 19 Louisville 23-20 in triple overtime before 45,618 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
"You put a dog in the corner, it's going to bite," linebacker Sio Moore said. "We've got no other choice but to bite. And bite hard. It's all about working and grinding it out. We talked about making the quarterback uncomfortable today and I think we did a good job with that. We tried to do that throughout the game."
This was the 20th time the Huskies have faced off against an opponent ranked in the top 25. UConn was 1-18 overall before with the win coming on Oct. 27, 2007, against No. 11 South Florida at Rentschler Field.
Louisville's sophomore quarterback sensation, Teddy Bridgewater, suffered a broken left wrist just before halftime and a sprained right ankle in the fourth quarter, but he still managed to bring the Cardinals back. He was 30-for-53 passing for 331 yards and two touchdowns but was sacked four times and was constantly hounded by the UConn defense that held the Cardinals scoreless through three quarters -- the first time it has done that -- and came within 21 seconds of winning in regulation.
"As much as we won, you've got to give Teddy Bridgewater credit and respect," Moore said. "Teddy, he had a rough game, getting hit. He kept coming back. You've got to tip your hat to him."
But the Huskies -- who also took a lot of hits -- kept coming back, too. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer took a mammoth shot from Louisville linebacker Preston Brown with 10:06 to play and never returned. Backup Johnny McEntee came in and made the play of the game, a 3-yard touchdown pass to Shakim Phillips that put UConn ahead 20-13 in the second OT.
"We had a play action and we were looking to hit Mike Smith over the middle," said McEntee, who was just 2 of 7 passing for 20 yards. "But there were two guys there so I kind of looked to Shak and he was one on one and he ran a great route and made a great catch."
"Johnny showed some real great poise," added Huskies head coach Paul Pasqualoni, who won back-to-back games at UConn for the first time. "He made a heck of a read and a heck of a throw."
And for the first time in a long time, the UConn offense was led by the run game. Lyle McCombs bulled his way for 133 yards as the Huskies ground out 149 against the Cardinals. It was the second straight 100-plus game for McCombs.
"The offensive line is doing a better job and me, personally, I'm running a little bit harder," McCombs said.
McCombs racked up 44 yards on the Huskies' first scoring drive, which ended with a 39-yard field goal by Chad Christen to make it 3-0 with 5:28 left in the opening quarter. He added 21 yards on a 10-play, 66-yard march that made it 10-0 with 10:20 left in the half on a 3-yard run by Nick Williams.
Back-to-back sacks on from Bridgeport's Trevardo Williams -- he had three for the game and now has 11½ for the season and 30½ for his career -- helped to keep Louisville out of the end zone, along with 11 pass breakups and the biggest interception of the season -- Blidi Wreh-Wilson picking off Bridgewater in the end zone in the third overtime to set up Christen's game-winner.
"I grew up in an era where you play defense first," Pasqualoni said. "The belief was, you play well on defense and you always had a chance to be in every game. These guys have kept us in games all year."
A 19-yard field goal from John Wallace and a 6-yard TD pass from Bridgewater to DeVante Parker with 21 seasons left in regulation tied the game at 10-10. In the first OT, both Wallace and Christen nailed 37-yard field goals before McEntee hit Phillips with that 3-yard score to make it 20-13 UConn. Bridgewater answered with a 25-yard scoring strike again to Parker to tie it at 20, but on a third and goal from the UConn 5, Wreh-Wilson picked off Bridgewater in the end zone. After three McCombs runs put the ball at the 14, Christen split the uprights and set off an electrical celebration on the sidelines.
"After I made that one to force the third overtime I knew I couldn't miss today, so I just worked hard," Christen said. "It feels great."