EAST HARTFORD — The day started with renewed hope and the temporary traction gained by the first victory ever against a Top 25 team on the road.
The day started with Beef O'Brady's Bowl or Bust! And all that sort of meaty, motivational senior day stuff.
The season ended with the thud of Chandler Whitmer's helmet driven into the Rentschler Field turf. The season ended with the sight of too many empty seats in the Rentschler Field stands. And the 2012 season ended with what must be a steely resolve that UConn's offense cannot, must not, stink it up for so many games again in 2013.
After Whitmer was knocked out of the second game in a row with what he — not anyone from UConn — identified as a concussion, the Huskies' quarterback surely will go through a battery of tests in the coming days to make sure he's OK.
Yet if the sight-and-smell test of the season-ending 34-17 loss to Cincinnati tells us anything, it's this: What UConn must address in the coming weeks and months is a rededication to making sure that the football program regains the uphill track it had been on until Randy Edsall bolted after the Fiesta Bowl in January 2011.
Otherwise, there will continue to be the entire rows of empty seats for a most intriguing Big East finale that could have put UConn in a bowl game and did give Cincinnati a four-way piece of the Big East title. Otherwise, the ACC, the Big Ten or whatever would-be suitor isn't going to be thrilled with State U.
The program-low 22,500 season tickets — after a high of 32,000 in 2005 — must improve. The program-low average of 34,672 fans after an announced crowd Saturday of 33,112 must improve. And to be honest, I had maybe 25,000 to 26,000 folks in the stands on this cold day.
Coach Paul Pasqualoni stood there for 20 minutes after this game and this season got away from his team. He stood there politely. He answered questions in a gentlemanly, if entirely unspectacular, fashion.
But he must know this: Back-to-back 5-7 seasons aren't good enough. A 10-14 record through two seasons in charge isn't good enough. And an offense that ranked last in the Big East at 17.7 points and 318.3 total yards isn't nearly good enough. Coming into Saturday, the Huskies were ranked 113th of 120 teams nationally in total offense. And coming on the heels of a similar ranking in 2011, well, the status quo isn't good enough.
He must address offensive coordinator George DeLeone's holding jobs as both offensive coordinator and line coach. DeLeone should do one or the other. Athletic director Warde Manuel, armed with proof that firing coaches after two years has not proved fruitful, isn't firing Pasqualoni after this season. No way. No how. So save your breath, folks. Yet if Pasqualoni balks at any and all suggestions at ways to improve the offense, well, that's not smart. And if he does, clearly the weight is all on him.
When asked if the team should have been better than 5-7, Pasqualoni talked the giveaway-takeaway ratio. He talked about two years of close games that could have changed with a turnover here, a field position there, a little thing anywhere.
Sorry, Paul, but this is the last time the close-but-no-cigar defense works. Next season, you've got to do better than 5-7.
Yes, the Huskies showed spine in winning against Pittsburgh and at Louisville. They showed some spine in twice battling back in this game, but the Bearcats blew it open in the fourth quarter. The good news is that the Huskies finally scored their only touchdown in the second half of a Big East game (not counting overtime). The bad news is that two Johnny McEntee interceptions helped pave the way to 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
McEntee, who threw a touchdown pass in overtime at Louisville, entered in the third quarter after a trick play ended Whitmer's season.
"I'm all right; I guess I blacked out and they wanted to take precautions since I had a concussion last week," Whitmer said. "They just didn't want me to go back in. It's part of football. The doctors say you don't want to mess around with your head."
Asked if this was worse than last week when he was knocked out of the game in Louisville, Whitmer said, "No, no, last week was pretty bad. I think being back so soon with getting hit again, they just didn't want to risk anything."
Whitmer had been crushed by Dan Giordano three plays earlier when Giordano got called for roughing the passer. There was a timeout. Scott McCummings went in for a play. But then Whitmer was left vulnerable on a trick play. He got smashed by Greg Blair along the sideline and got called for intentional grounding as he crashed to the turf.
Pasqualoni said a conservative approach was taken with Whitmer. He said as a coach he doesn't like to play doctor. And as a sports writer, I don't either. But mounting blows to the head are one of the greatest fears in athletics today. And if the UConn staff isn't wondering if they left Whitmer vulnerable with that trick play, well, they aren't human.
"Absolutely not," Whitmer answered when asked if he felt he shouldn't have gone out there. "I passed all my tests. There were extensive tests. I took days off. I was able to subside the headache and [handle] the bright lights. After that I was good. I was good to play. They did what was best and smart. I just happened to get hit again."
The cumulative effect of head blows is always a concern. Pasqualoni says once the evaluation is done on Whitmer, he'll let us know. We will hold him to that.
"Am I concerned long term?" Pasqualoni said. "I'll be concerned if the medical staff is concerned."
"I'll have to see what they say," Whitmer said. "We have a great medical staff. They'll stay on top of it. I'm not too worried."
Pasqualoni, meanwhile, had better be worried about this program. He should be worried. Manuel, too. A day of hope crashed into a disappointing season.