EAST HARTFORD — The buzz was starting to form as kickoff time quickly approached. When word came out that Jack Zergiotis was about to become the fourth true freshman to start at quarterback for the UConn football team since the graduation of the record-setting Dan Orlovsky, those who came out to Rentschler Field expecting the struggling Huskies to get blown out braced for the worst.

Then a funny thing happened. The defense that couldn’t stop anybody a season ago offered plenty of resistance and despite some miscues, the wide-eyed QB from Montreal delivered enough plays to give UConn a chance to reward those who headed out to Saturday’s game a chance to stick around to the bitter end.

A late interception by Zergiotis might have wrapped up visiting Illinois’ 31-23 victory in front of a crowd of 23,108, but there was still some swagger to be seen from players on both sides of the ball. On a day when the Huskies had multiple opportunities to wilt, UConn had a chance to walk out of its home field with a win over a Big Ten program.

Yes, it was a 17th straight loss to a Football Bowl Subdivision team, but it was much different from most of the losses in the last couple of seasons when the game was usually over by halftime.

“They came in and thought they were going to run through us,” UConn junior safety Tyler Coyle said. “We held our ground, did all we could and tried to win the game. We kept going and didn’t get down, we made a mistake here and there but we kept fighting.”

Coyle got the Huskies started with a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown on the Illini’s first offensive series. UConn led 10-0 at the end of the first quarter and 13-0 early in the second quarter. If not for some ultra conservative offensive play calling, it’s quite possible that the Huskies might have been able to hold onto the lead. However, a pair of Clay Harris field goals were answered by three touchdown passes by Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters and James McCourt’s 53-yard field goal on the final play of the first half as Illinois headed into the locker room leading 24-13.

Illinois fumbled the ball attempting a reverse on the first drive of the third quarter. Sophomore defensive tackle Travis Jones recovered the fumble, and on the ensuing derive, a one-handed catch by Jay Rose helped set up Kevin Mensah’s 2-yard scoring run.

A pair of penalties against sophomore cornerback Keyshawn Paul on the next Illinois drive allowed the Illini to regain the two-score lead on the second scoring reception of the game by Josh Imatorbhebhe. He broke a tackle by Tahj Herring-Wilson en route to the 13-yard score.

It looked like the lead would grow when Zergiotis fumbled the ball after scrambling out of the pocket to give Illinois the ball at the UConn 9. However, on third down linebacker D.J. Morgan was unblocked and he not only recorded the sack but took the ball away from Peters. UConn kept the ball for 15 plays before Harris booted his third field goal of the game, this one from 33 yards to make it 31-23.

“Once the blitz was called I knew I had to execute my job no matter if I came free, as long as I ran as hard as I could off the edge, somebody is coming through,” said Morgan, who led the Huskies with 11 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. “If he wasn’t looking at me I was definitely attacking the ball. I am a Denver Bronco fan so I have seen Von Miller do it in the Super Bowl so I definitely took that from him.

“It is definitely a building block, guys have talked to be about last year it may have not been the same and this is giving us a lot confidence and the team as a whole we know we were right there. [Senior offensive tackle Matt] Peart got hurt early and Dylan [Niedrowski] stepped up, he made really good plays for us. Jack had to come as a true freshman and he made a good plays for us so we are right there. We just have to knock down that door and keep working.”

The UConn defense got the ball back with the aid of a holding penalty by Illinois receiver Trevon Sidney on third down, but the Huskies had to give the ball right back.

Illinois converted on third down when Paul was whistled for a holding penalty, the third call against the sophomore from Miami.

UConn (1-1) was still able to force a punt after a third down tackle by Kevon Jones but after a couple of completions to Cameron Ross, Zergiotis was intercepted by Dele Harding.

“They played hard,” said UConn coach Randy Edsall, who entered the press conference room fighting back tears following the news that his mother passed away. “They played every play like the last play they are ever going to play and by doing that, it gave them an opportunity to win and that is all you can ask as a coach.”

Zergiotis was the No. 3 quarterback in the season opener, but with starter Mike Beaudry dealing with an injury, he got the start.

Zergiotis finished with 275 passing yards, the most for a true freshman making his first start at UConn in the FBS era. Edsall made it clear that Zergiotis is UConn’s starting quarterback moving forward.

It could be a costly loss for the Huskies as right tackle Matt Peart was injured in the first quarter and did not return. Peart was making his 38th consecutive start, one shy of the program record since the move to the FBS level. Zach Hurd and Junior Joseph each started 39 straight games. Edsall didn’t have an update on the severity of Peart’s injury.

Receivers Ardell Brown (7 catches, 81 yards) and Cam Ross (4 catches, 85 yards) added some punch to UConn’s offense after missing the season-opening win over Wagner due to injury.

Imatorbhebhe had a pair of touchdown receptions, Peters passed for 225 yards while Oluwole Betiku had 31/2 sacks and was part of four of the 12 tackles for loss for Illinois (2-0).

james.fuller

@hearstmediact.com; @NHRJimFuller