After 15 months, Mazon Walker and the UAlbany defense finally got the call.
Up 24-20 Friday night against New Hampshire in the last three minutes of the Great Danes’ first football game since Dec. 7, 2019, the UAlbany defense twice found its back against the wall trying to preserve the lead.
“We had to clock in,” Walker, a redshirt junior defensive tackle, said during the post-game teleconference.
The UAlbany defense did that with a pair of late red-zone stands, escaping an error-filled fourth quarter to get out of Durham, New Hampshire with a four-point win in the opener of the team’s unprecedented spring season.
Jeff Undercuffler threw a trio of touchdown passes — one each to Mike Gray, Tyler Oedekoven and Karl Mofor — to help UAlbany (1-0 CAA, 1-0 overall) pull out the win despite a blocked punt that New Hampshire returned for a touchdown, a pair of costly fumbles — including one that set up the touchdown that got New Hampshire back into the game in the fourth quarter — and a botched snap on the Great Danes’ final punt attempt that led to a penalty for illegal kicking that set the Wildcats up on the UAlbany 7-yard line with 1:07 to play in the fourth quarter.
“There were a lot of blunders,” UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said. “There were some mistakes we’d like to get back, obviously. Some crazy things happened in that football game.”
But New Hampshire (0-1, 0-1) was beset by mistakes of its own, primarily in the form of 11 penalties. Two of those flags came on the final drive, eventually pushing the Wildcats back to the 17 as Max Brosmer threw four straight incomplete passes — the last of which UAlbany safety Hayden Specht knocked away from receiver Nick Lorden in the end zone — to turn the ball over on downs, allowing UAlbany to breathe a sigh of relief.
Just 90 seconds before that stand, the UAlbany defense came up with its first crucial stop of the quarter, with pressure forcing Brosmer to hurry a fourth-down throw that redshirt junior linebacker AJ Mistler broke up.
“It was doable. It wasn’t anything that was impossible,” Walker said of the situation the UAlbany defense faced late in the game. “We’ve done it before, had our backs against the wall in the last couple minutes. . . . It’s nice to know that everybody knows their role. The more we know, the faster we’re able to play.”
“It’s what we preach. It’s what we practice,” Gattuso said. “We put them in that situation a lot, and they executed really well. I’m really proud of them.”
Down 14-7 at halftime, UAlbany surgically took the lead with 17 straight points to start the second half. Touchdown passes from Undercuffler to Oedekoven and Mofor, sandwiched around a Walker strip-sack that Roberto Roena recovered deep in UNH territory, put the Great Danes up 21-14 just before the midway point of the third quarter.
Mofor was largely bottled up on the night — he finished with 79 yards on 28 carries, and UAlbany as a whole was limited to 32 yards on 37 attempts thanks to sacks and special-teams gaffes — but broke loose for a 31-yard run early in the fourth quarter to set up a 37-yard Dylan Burns field goal that made it 24-14.
Then, with a chance to break the game open on UAlbany’s next possession, Undercuffler was sacked by Niko Kvietkus, and Oleh Manzyk secured and returned the loose ball to the UAlbany 25. Two plays later, Brosmer threw his second touchdown pass of the night to Sean Coyne to make it a one-possession game.
But, for all the Great Danes’ special-teams struggles, it was a play in the kicking game that made a huge difference in the final result as redshirt freshman defensive end Jared Verse blocked Jordan Conn’s extra point, which forced UNH to go for a touchdown on both of its late drives rather than having a short field goal attempt to tie the game.
“We’d probably still be playing if we didn’t get that blocked extra point,” said New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell, a Saratoga Springs native who returned to the sideline for the first time since 2018 after a battle with bladder cancer.
Undercuffler finished the game 23 of 36 through the air for 192 yards and three touchdowns, finding immediate chemistry with a rebuilt receiving corps led by Oedekoven (10 receptions, 81 yards) and Gray (seven receptions, 74 yards).
The Great Danes headed into the season needed to replace nearly 160 receptions and 2,400 yards produced by the duo of Juwan Green and Jerah Reeves in 2019, while junior Dev Holmes — the team’s leading receiver in 2018, who left the team early in the 2019 season before rejoining the program in January 2020 — was dismissed from the program earlier this week.
There were some rocky moments on a windy night at Wildcat Stadium, but the late heroics from the defense have the Great Danes at 1-0 heading into next Saturday’s game at Maine.
“I just want to give a shoutout to our defense,” Undercuffler said. “They stepped up . . . and just ended the game for us.”