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Assessing the damage of an unlucky season

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The Bearcats were officially eliminated from bowl contention Saturday and hope the bitter taste of Pitt representing the final game of the year can spark recovery.

 

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. - The ball popped off the moving hand of Connecticut lineman Kendall Reyes and into the air. One inch to the left and it drops harmlessly into the secondary. One inch lower and it plops straight down. One inch higher and ...

 

"It's a touchdown," quarterback Zach Collaros said.

 

Not this season.

 

Not in the year where, no matter how hard the Bearcats try, the ball always seems to bounce the wrong way.

 

This season, during an 11-play, 73-yard drive, Reyes tips the ball and it falls into his arms in perfect stride. This season, the lineman one donut shy of 300 pounds rumbles 79 yards for a decisive momentum change the Bearcats don't recover from.

 

"That's kind of been the story of our season," WR Armon Binns said. "We're right there. We're not a bad football team. We just had some bad luck with how the ball's been bouncing."

 

Opinions will float around as freely as criticism for why the Bearcats (4-7, 2-4) fell from BCS to no bowl at all. Many will be valid. Some will not.

 

The Bearcats made their fair share of mistakes. Dropped interceptions. Repeated costly personal fouls. Missed assignments. Turnovers. Turnovers. Turnovers.

 

UConn established itself as the better team on Saturday and deserved the eventual 38-17 victory.   

 

Yet, in this Murphy's Law season, the play to turn the tide came from a ball that bounced the wrong way. Only fitting.

 

"I think it bounced off somebody's back in there and feel right into his hands," Collaros said. "Good play on their part, but very unlucky on our part."

 

Maybe the Bearcats used up all their luck on the way to 12-0. Maybe the Craig Carey interception against Fresno State and the call on Isaiah Pead's fumble against West Virginia and missed extra point by Pittsburgh sapped up all the positive karma.

 

That's football, Butch Jones would say Saturday -- as he has many times after frustrating losses this year.

 

The bounce of the ball can change the perspective through which we view weeks and months worth of work. It forces UC coaches and players unfamiliar with the reality of missing out on the postseason to stare it dead in the eyes in the bowels of Rentschler Field.

 

For an emotional Collaros after the game, he stared through red eyes at seniors he felt he failed. He shouldered the blame for a group of 13 players who are more than teammates not accomplishing their goal.

 

"The thing that makes me hurt the most and upsets me the most is the seniors," Collaros said. "Some of those guys are my best friends. Seeing how disappointed and how sad they are - of course, I'm sad that we lost - it makes it hurt that much more when our best friends in there won't get a shot to play a 13th game."

 

Collaros spoke with truth and from the heart. He finished 26 of 50 for 288 yards, a touchdown and four interceptions. Two of the picks came attempting to make plays with a near insurmountable lead late. He scratched for every inch of his season-high 84 rushing yards and Houdini'd big plays out of impending disasters all afternoon.

His game resembled that of his team: heavy on effort, doomed by small mistakes and bad bounces.

 

Nobody took the losses harder than Collaros this season. Nobody poured more of himself in to turning the season around. Call it a byproduct of never losing a game he started until the opener at Fresno State.

 

"Every time you lose," he said, "you die a little."

 

Indeed, this team hopes whatever doesn't kill them, makes them stronger. Saturday's loss was the latest tough lesson in a season full of them. But Collaros viewed the bigger picture of what he learned this year through a clearer focus with the ultimate outcome now officially decided.

 

"The biggest thing (I learned) is winning hides a lot," he said. "When you win it covers up a lot of stuff you're doing wrong. Not just on the field, but off the field - missing class, stuff of that nature. When you lose that stuff gets exposed."

 

Nobody knows better than Jones.

 

He said the reality of being left out of the bowls was "a hollow feeling," however, it's one he doesn't want his team to forget. In an effort to flip the negative momentum of this season, the Bearcats can't forget what they saw in the eyes of the seniors. Nobody can forget the day the final goal of this season took a another wayward bounce in the wrong direction.

 

"This has to be a motivating force every day they come to work," Jones said. "We'll be back."

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