EAST HARTFORD — After he had popped Rutgers' bubble with bubble screens to Deshon Foxx, after he had hit Rutgers in the gut with passes up the gut to Geremy Davis, Casey Cochran smiled when asked what was his favorite play of this Saturday afternoon.
"That late checkdown to Max DeLorenzo," Cochran said after he had put up Tom Brady-like numbers in UConn's 28-17 win over big — and, now, gone to B1G — rival Rutgers. "There was no one open deep, and if I had tried to force that ball, this game may have ended differently. Max got himself open, made a move, got the first down. He made that drive."
After completing 25 of 33 throws for 311 yards, two touchdown passes and no interceptions, Cochran could have said, "Didn't you see that rope I threw to Dhameer Bradley on the first touchdown?" Or, "How'd you like the way I dropped that one into Davis with three guys on him?" Or even, "How'd you like that last TD pass under duress to Brian Lemelle into the corner of the end zone?"
But, no, Casey Cochran liked the way he went through his progressions with four minutes remaining. He liked the way he didn't try to take something that wasn't there and dropped the ball off to his running back on a third-and-4 play that went for 17 yards to the Rutgers 3. It set up the final score that sealed UConn's second victory in a row.
"The biggest thing today was we didn't try to shove a square peg in a round hole," Cochran said. "They gave us some throws all day and we took it. We knew we weren't going to win the game on any one play. We knew it would take the whole game to win."
You know what was impressive about Cochran in his first home start at quarterback? Not his arm, although it was plenty precise. It was his poise. There wasn't an answer to any prayer, because there was no prayer needed. All afternoon, Cochran played like he meant it. He knew what he was doing. He led. He commanded.
"The players trust him," interim coach T.J. Weist said. "And that's huge."
Shane Day's play calling was strong and so was Cochran's response to it. His teammates clearly have come to believe in Cochran and, after winning two of his three starts, he has given them every reason to keep doing so. He completed 75.7 percent of his passes for a team that insists, despite its 2-9 record, that it remains, "All in." Nobody could argue it wasn't UConn's best QB performance of the season.
"Casey did a great job handling the offense," Weist said. "Part of him making good, sound decisions is everything you want from a quarterback. It's all the film study. It's the looks he sees. It's those decisions that he makes, especially at critical times, in those four, five, six seconds that it takes to get in and out of a play."
Weist said that Rutgers did a good job of disguising defensive looks during the first half. Cochran came back to the sideline, talked about it and made adjustments. He led drives of 79 and 80 yards. How many times have you seen that this season? Not many. By the end of the game, even Weist's jaw dropped with the touchdown that Cochran threw to Lemelle while being knocked to the ground.
"I asked [Cochran], 'What are you throwing that ball over there? You've got Geremy and Deshon over here,'" Weist said. "And you've got two freshmen on the other side. But he knew he was hot, had pressure coming from that side. Lemelle made a great catch. And that was Casey making the right decision."
Cochran thought he had thrown it out of bounds. He looked up. The official was signaling a touchdown.
Foxx, who had dropped a bunch against USF, caught nine balls for 117 yards. Davis caught five for 98 yards. Lemelle caught five, too. Weist says he knew that Rutgers would stop the run. Still, the Huskies ran the ball 29 times to open it up for the pass.
"They try to squeeze everything in and back their safeties up in different forms of cover-2," Weist said. "We knew the middle was open and designed in-cuts especially to Geremy. We practiced it. It becomes a trust factor that Geremy would be there."
Trust. Timing. Yes, it was there. And when Rutgers bunched for the run, UConn threw wide to Foxx.
"Coach Day always says if you prepare as hard as you can early, it will help you in the long run," Cochran said. "All year it has almost been there. Today it was there. Everything just clicked."
After Rutgers took a 17-14 lead, the game's turning point came on a bubble screen to Foxx that went for 40 yards. It led to UConn's go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
"We knew they were going to blitz us," Cochran said. "We knew they were going to play a 2-shell [coverage] and give us the inside basically. By running the ball, those linebackers weren't getting very deep. All those inside routes and bubbles were huge all day. It was wide open for me. All I had to do was throw it there."
Cochran was patient. He found round pegs for round holes.
"Even when we fell behind, we didn't feel like we were losing," Cochran said. "The sidelines last year and earlier this year, whenever something went bad, you could see guys' heads go down. You could see the air deflated out of us. We never had that. We stayed tough through the game. I'm proud of everyone not putting down their heads."
Weist insisted that he didn't regret starting Cochran sooner than the SMU game, replacing Chandler Whitmer with Tim Boyle first, burning his redshirt.
"We did what we did and we're sticking with it," Weist said. "What if Tim had done a great job? We threw him in tough position [especially against UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati]. He just needs more time to develop. I'm not going to look back."
Weist said that Cochran pressed during camp, that he wasn't getting a lot of reps and was trying too hard to make something out of it. The result, Weist said, were some bad decisions. Through all the changes, Cochran's demeanor did not change.
"It was a slow progress," Weist said. "It's hard to show leadership when you're not in that position. As the season went along, after the coaching change and the change to Tim, he started getting reps. We opened it up more, to look at different quarterbacks, and that's when he really stepped up. When it came time, he was the best decision-maker and that's why we went with him and it's proven good for this offense."
"He always has been motivating even when he was third team. Quarterbacks at times can be emotional. Casey has handled it so well. Through all the changes he has been Casey. It's not like all of a sudden he's some super quarterback now. He has the same mentality and demeanor. He doesn't panic. Up or down, he's the same guy. You need that from a quarterback. A lot of guys can chirp, but unless you can back it up, guys aren't going to trust what you say. He backs it up. He doesn't have a great arm. It's not like he's slinging all around the field, slinging it deep. He just makes good decisions."
Quarterback is a complex, crazy position and, except for Dan Orlovsky, it has been even more complex, crazier in UConn's major college history. But, maybe, just maybe, UConn has found the round peg for its round hole.