ALBANY — What the UAlbany football team was hoping would be a return to form Saturday for redshirt sophomore quarterback Jeff Undercuffler — and the rest of the team, for that matter — never materialized.
Injuries have been one of the few consistent parts of an inconsistent spring season for the Great Danes, and this week the injury wheel landed on Undercuffler, who was held out of Saturday’s 21-7 CAA loss to rival Stony Brook at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium due to injury.
“He got banged up last week in the game [against Rhode Island],” Gattuso said during a post-game teleconference with reporters. “We thought he was OK, but he caught a hand on a helmet on Tuesday, so he couldn’t practice Wednesday. Thursday, he practiced and looked really good. We all felt he was going to play. Friday, he turned to make a throw in our run-through and yelled. The ribs started causing some pain that they weren’t causing earlier on Thursday.”
Not wanting to make a game-time decision on his starting quarterback, Gattuso settled Friday night on giving the nod to redshirt sophomore backup Braeden Zenelovic, whose career before Saturday consisted of a pair of completions for 14 yards in 2019.
Zenelovic was 9 of 20 for 69 yards with a pair of interceptions before being replaced — while down 14-0 in the third quarter — by true freshman Joey Carino, who led UAlbany (1-3 CAA, 1-3 overall) to a touchdown on the first drive of his collegiate career, but also committed a fumble on the Great Danes’ next drive that set Stony Brook (1-3, 1-3) up for a touchdown that sealed the Seawolves’ reclaiming of the Golden Apple Trophy.
Once Gattuso reached the conclusion Friday night that Undercuffler wasn’t going to play, the head coach said his mind was made up that both Zenelovic and Carino would see action against Stony Brook.
“If you don’t have your starter out there, you might as well get your other guys some experience,” Gattuso said. “I really like what I saw out of him [Carino].”
Carino added an extra dimension to the UAlbany offense as a runner, carrying the ball 12 times for 58 yards in addition to completing 6 of 11 passes for 64 yards.
It was Carino’s running that sparked UAlbany’s lone touchdown drive, including a 26-yard pickup that set up the Somers native’s 8-yard touchdown strike to Chris Potts with 1:21 left in the third quarter.
“I haven’t been in a game in a while — since high school, I guess that’s a year-and-a-half ago,” Carino said. “They put me in, we just were rolling. I ran the ball a little bit, threw the ball, and we got a touchdown.”
UAlbany got the ball back with a chance to tie the game at the start of the fourth quarter after a defensive stop, but on third-and-3 from the UAlbany 23-yard line, Carino fumbled on a rollout. Stony Brook’s Peterson Octavien recovered and returned the ball to the UAlbany 4, setting up Ty Son Lawton’s second touchdown run of the game on the very next play.
Despite the costly fumble, Gattuso was impressed with Carino’s unflappability in his debut.
“I think he’s way ahead of the curve,” Gattuso said. “I’m disappointed that the ball came out, but that’s something we can work on with ball security drills. I think he’ll learn from it.”
UAlbany senior running back Karl Mofor ran for 148 yards on 30 carries, and the Great Danes outgained Stony Brook, 347-251, but UAlbany turned the ball over four times and committed eight penalties — including six false starts — while also being dominated in field position.
Ten of UAlbany’s 12 drives started at the team’s 25-yard line or worse, while Stony Brook started seven of its 13 drives at its own 40 or better — including three drives in UAlbany territory.
“We just have to eliminate the mental mistakes we make,” Mofor said.
Injuries also continued to mount. In addition to Undercuffler, wide receiver Tyler Oedekoven and linebacker Levi Metheny both missed the game, while defensive tackle Mazon Walker, offensive linemen Dominick Lito and Kobe Thomas and wide receivers Mike Gray, Mohamed Jabbie, Mekhi Stevenson and Potts all exited the game and didn’t return.
Gattuso said that, if healthy, Undercuffler — who was coming off a three-interception performance last Saturday against Rhode Island in a 17-10 overtime loss — will start next Saturday against Delaware as UAlbany attempts to salvage something over the final two games of the spring season — even with the team’s hopes of a return to the FCS playoffs dashed.
“I’ve never coached based on my record,” Gattuso said. “I’ve never believed one game was more important than another. Important games come from winning prior games. Is the Delaware game important to us? It is to me. I know it’s important to the kids on this football team.”