Lyle McCombs, the redshirt freshman tailback from Staten Island, N.Y., got a chance to start when D.J. Shoemate sprained his ankle in practice Thursday. After the coaching staff observed Shoemate wasn’t going to be 100 percent, head coach Paul Pasqualoni said the decision was made to start McCombs and save Shoemate for next week’s game at Vanderbilt.
How did that work out? McCombs carried the ball 24 times for 141 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry and broke free for a 60-yard scamper to the Fordham 2 in the second quarter. Two plays later he busted into the end zone for a 1-yard TD run that gave UConn a 14-0 lead.
McCombs, who is 5-8 and 172 pounds, said he got the word he was starting during pre-game stretching. Everyone had assumed Shoemate, the transfer from USC, would start for the Huskies. McCombs was expected to get his share of time – but nothing like he did.
“I had no idea and they said, ‘You get to start today, so make the most of it,’ ” McCombs said. “I was like, ‘All right, let’s go.’ I did make the most of it, I guess.”
On UConn’s very first play from scrimmage, starting quarterback Johnny McEntee passed to McCombs for a nifty 8-yard gain on a swing play. That might have chased away the butterflies for both players.
“I was nervous, but that first play, I got hit pretty hard and that woke me up after that,” McCombs said.
It just kept getting better for McCombs after that. His four TDs are the most for a UConn player since Jordan Todman ran for four against Cincinnati on Nov. 7, 2009. While Shoemate convinced Pasqualoni early in camp that he was the starter at tailback – and had learned to protect the football – McCombs never dropped too far behind and entered the week equal on the depth chart. The biggest concern with McCombs, given his size, had been his durability.
Did he answer those questions?
“You tell me,” he said. “I got pretty banged up today, but I’m all right.”
McCombs played on the scout team last year, waiting his turn while Todman did everything for UConn’s offense. But he knew his chance would come.
“It was a long wait but I knew my time would come eventually,” McCombs said. “I’m still young. And it came sooner than I thought.”
The response by McCombs allowed the Huskies to keep Shoemate on the sideline and not risk further injury. Pasqualoni said he thinks Shoemate can bounce back and be ready for the Vanderbilt game. If Shoemate and McCombs need to share the running load, the Huskies can feel confident now that McCombs has demonstrated what he can do. McCombs also had two receptions for 17 yards.
“Lyle is in great shape and he has stamina,” Pasqualoni said. “One of the things you really look for in a good back is the ability to stay out there. I don’t like it when they’re looking at you on the sideline like, ‘Coach, I’m tired. Get me out of here.’ For us it’s, ‘You stay out there until we put the other guy in.’ Lyle isn’t big but fundamentally he’s pretty good.
“We’re fortunate we’ve got D.J. We expect him to be healthy and ready to go next week. Lyle is a great guy to put in there. And J.J. [Jonathan Jean-Louis] is ready to go also. I just think it will make the competition a little more fierce.”
Jean-Louis had 18 yards on five carries as the Huskies gained 206 yards on the ground.
McEntee not only started at QB, he completed 8 of 12 passes for 113 yards. Scott McCummings threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ryan Griffin, who looked like a terrific weapon for the Huskies. And Mike Nebrich was 3-for-8 for 60 yards and one interception on a busted play and a bad decision. McCummings also ran seven times for 23 yards. “The next step is to keep going,” Pasqualoni said. “It’s a work in progress. I’ve got to go back and grade the film but I thought there were some pretty good plays that each of them made. I’m sure everybody in this room would’ve loved to have seen one guy jump out in front of the other. But you have to be patient. It’s a fierce competition. We will keep going until it’s clear.”
Pasqualoni became the first UConn head coach to win his coaching debut since 1923. He also tied Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer for most wins (108) by a Big East coach.
Kicker Dave Teggart had five extra points to move into second place all-time at UConn with 104. He now has 254 career points, which ties UConn’s all-time record.
UConn’s defense held Fordham to 20 yards rushing and eight first downs. Linebacker Jory Johnson led the Huskies with 11 tackles. Safety Byron Jones recorded his first career interception. And linebacker Sio Moore did not disappoint. He was all over the field with seven tackles and two breakups.