ALBANY — The first three games of the spring football season have been an uphill struggle for UAlbany redshirt sophomore quarterback Jeff Undercuffler.
After putting up record-shattering numbers in his first season as a starter in 2019, the success has been far harder to come by in Undercuffler’s encore effort. Consistency has been hard to come by with an ever-changing group of unfamiliar, oft-injured receivers, and the UAlbany passing game has found itself mired in a funk halfway through the spring campaign.
“He’s been fighting through not being sharp,” UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said in a post-game teleconference following Saturday’s 17-10 overtime loss to Rhode Island. “My heart goes out to him, too, because it’s hard.”
The issues popped up in each of UAlbany’s first two games, as Undercuffler’s completion percentage hovered around 50%, but the problems came to a head in Saturday’s loss at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium.
Undercuffler was 25 of 42 for 217 yards, but after an efficient first quarter, the wheels slowly came off the UAlbany aerial attack. He was intercepted three times, all of which came in Rhode Island territory, with picks in the closing seconds of the second and fourth quarters robbing UAlbany of crucial scoring opportunities in a game where points were few and far between.
“We need him to play better,” Gattuso said, “and we need to coach him better.”
Undercuffler was requested for Saturday’s post-game teleconference, and reporters were initially told the quarterback would be available before later being informed that he would not be coming.
The struggles persisted as UAlbany (1-2 CAA, 1-2 overall) continued to shuffle its receiving corps in an effort to replace the production the team lost following the graduation of 2019 stars Juwan Green and Jerrah Reeves.
UAlbany has been hit by nagging injuries at receiver since preseason camp began, and Saturday was the third different primary receiving group the team has used. Tyler Oedekoven, Mike Gray and Mo Jabbie got the majority of the snaps against New Hampshire, then an injury kept Jabbie out of UAlbany’s Week 2 loss to Maine, with Jackson Parker and Chris Potts both seeing time alongside Gray and Oedekoven.
Saturday, Jabbie returned to the lineup but Oedekoven — whom Gattuso called UAlbany’s “Mr. Dependable” — was out after picking up an injury during the week. Redshirt freshman Gray, freshman Parker and graduate student Jabbie — a Rutgers transfer — were the only UAlbany receivers to see the field against Rhode Island.
“We just don’t have consistent receivers for him,” Gattuso said. “I don’t know if maybe that’s affecting him.”
Even with the carousel at receiver, Gattuso acknowledged mistakes that Undercuffler needs to correct over the second half of the season.
All three interceptions came in high-leverage situations, and Undercuffler missed connections at a couple of crucial junctions that Gattuso said could have swung things in UAlbany’s favor.
“We had the opportunity to make some plays,” Gattuso said. “We had a guy running wide open the second-to-last drive [of regulation]. There’s no one near him. He’s going to run for a long time. It’s frustrating.”
PASS RUSH GETS HOME
Lost in the frustrating result was a season-best performance from UAlbany’s defensive front.
After a subpar effort a week earlier against Maine that was riddled with offsides penalties and a lack of pressure, the Great Danes’ pass rushers consistently made life miserable for Rhode Island quarterback Kasim Hill throughout regulation.
UAlbany finished the day with a season-best six sacks including two from redshirt freshman Jared Verse and 1.5 from redshirt junior Mazon Walker.
Verse finished with four tackles for loss on Saturday, and the redshirt freshman leads UAlbany with three sacks and six tackles for loss on the season despite only playing in a rotational capacity.
“Jared Verse has so much ability. We’re trying to coach him along,” Gattuso said. “He’s young. He’s a redshirt freshman, he didn’t have a fall — none of us had a fall here at Albany — but every day, every week he just gets better and better. He can be a very dominating football player, and I’m super excited about him and his future.”
That UAlbany’s front seven dominated so much of the game — even with redshirt senior linebacker Levi Metheny leaving the game with an injury late in the second quarter — made Rhode Island turning its lone play of overtime into Hill’s game-winning 25-yard touchdown run all the more frustrating.
“You have to leave it all out there, literally every play,” Walker said. “The play that you don’t is the play you put your head down, sad that you lost.”