EAST HARTFORD — The first steps that Jack Zergiotis took on the morning of his first collegiate start came with a certain amount of anxiety and a sense of the unknown.

The hard-throwing freshman from Montreal had several days to prepare mentally to become fifth freshman to start at quarterback for UConn dating back to the 2001 season. All he had to do was go up against Illinois, a Big Ten team coming off a game with 12 tackles for loss and six quarterback sacks and play nearly the entire game without reliable senior offensive tackle Matt Peart. What possible reason did he have to be a little bit antsy?

By the time the game ended, it was clear that the Huskies had found a new starting quarterback. UConn coach Randy Edsall confirmed that fact in the press conference following UConn’s 31-23 loss to the Illini on Saturday.

“There is no quarterback controversy, he is our quarterback moving forward,” Edsall said.

Zergiotis was 21 of 32 for 275 yards. The only true freshmen to throw for more yards in a game at UConn during UConn’s time playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level are Dan Orlovsky, who started 27 NFL games, and Tim Boyle, currently the No. 2 quarterback behind future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers.

Zergiotis was disappointed to see three promising drives stall out resulting in the Huskies settling for field goals. He was frustrated about his three turnovers including an interception with 2:13 remaining to prevent UConn from driving for the touchdown and tying two-point conversion, but he wasn’t been too hard on himself after the loss.

“There were a couple of plays that I could have made that would have impacted the outcome of the game, but we are going to get better and move on,” Zergiotis said.

“I thought considering the circumstances, I did fine but once again Coach put me in to win the game and I couldn’t do it. I am not putting the loss on me, but I am saying we definitely could have come out with a win and it would have been huge to beat a Big Ten team going into Indiana.”

Zergiotis didn’t arrive at UConn until the summer, but had the playbook sent to him in January. During preseason camp he certainly displayed his arm strength and also the intangible qualities the Huskies are looking for in their starting quarterback. Still, transfer Mike Beaudry won the starting job and played the entire game in the season opener against Wagner. Beaudry was injured during the game and early in the week leading into the preparations for the Illinois game, Zergiotis began working with the first-team offense.

“On Monday Coach [Edsall] told me I’d be running with the 1’s during the week,” Zergiotis said. “I had a couple decent days of practice and they said we are going with you so they trusted in me and gave me the opportunity. It would have been nice to get a win, no doubt.”

Edsall knows something about putting his faith in a talented true freshman quarterback. His decision to start Orlovsky in six games in 2001 after an injury to incumbent Keron Henry changed the fortunes of a program transitioning to the FBS level. Now another talented newcomer with some swagger and plenty of talent has been handed the keys to the offense.

“There is something about that young man, he kind of has the ‘it’ factor,” Edsall said. “There are some things we will do to help him even be better but I saw something out of him in the preseason. Mike got hurt last week and couldn’t go. I talked with the offensive coaches, but Sunday I went to practice and saw something and just said this is the way we are going to go.

“I’ve been around the game for 40 years coaching it and I think I have a pretty decent eye for judging talent and judging what you need to get it done. There is something I have seen out of the kid, the way he handles himself, the way he plays. He has a strong arm, I don’t want to say it but he is like one of the boys, give me a Molson and let’s go get a drink and sit down with the offensive linemen. There is just something, you just see it and feel it.”

Zergiotis was 14 of 19 for 169 yards in the second half before his final pass landed in the arms of Illinois linebacker Dele Harding. His numbers could probably been even more impressive, but the UConn coaching staff played it safe in the play-calling department in the first half when the Huskies got off to an early lead.

“If you had told me that a couple months ago [he would be starting], I would have said hell no but I learned the playbook really quickly and there are a lot of plays to know,” Zergiotis said. “I am happy that Coach trusted me to win games.

“Coaches asked me which I play I like but I basically said I like all the plays but I want to throw the ball and if they give me an opportunity, I am going to take it.”

Zergiotis completed passes to eight different receivers. Cam Ross had a 40-yard reception, the longest of the game, Ardell Brown went down to make a couple of diving catches and Southington native Jay Rose had a 23-yard one-handed catch to set up a short touchdown run by Kevin Mensah.

Rose, who came to UConn as a highly touted quarterback prospect, didn’t know that Edsall proclaimed Zergiotis to be the Huskies’ starting quarterback moving forward but he certainly didn’t argue with that decision.

“He played his butt off, I know everybody is proud of him and very impressed with what he did today,” Rose said. “The kid has a slingshot of an arm, the way he throws the ball it comes out so fast and he can get it where it needs to be. He knows how to play football, we trust him back there.

“He is whole other level, his composure was unreal for somebody that young to play the way he did, I couldn’t imagine.”

Zergiotis said while he was nervous when he got up Saturday morning, he was calm, cool and collected when he took to the field a couple of hours before the game. He certainly had plenty of help.

“The whole offense and especially the offensive line was with him making sure he stayed up, there wasn’t many things he could be down about,” Rose said. “I know he is upset about the [final] interception but it is part of the game and the way he played today, there is nothing he should be upset about. His performance today, it wowed a lot of people. he is a young kid, in his first college football game, he goes out and throws the ball against a very good Illinois defense, that says a lot about him.”

james.fuller@hearstmediact.com; @NHRJimFuller