ALBANY — It may sound funny to say, with his team sitting at 0-3 in CAA football play and 0-5 overall, but UAlbany defensive end Jared Verse was completely straight-faced when he discussed his feelings on the Great Danes’ prospects for the final six games of the season.
“If we put 60 minutes all together,” Verse said, “I don’t think anyone can stop us.”
Looking at the five games UAlbany has played thus far, it’s not too much of a stretch to see Verse’s point of view. It’s been a difficult and frustrating start to the season by any estimation, but the schedule as a whole has been brutal and, in the Great Danes’ three conference losses at least, the team has been a play or two away each time from turning a one-possession loss into a win.
UAlbany’s four FCS opponents so far are all either ranked or receiving votes in national polls, and have combined to suffer just one loss between them.
Of course, that difficult trend will continue at least one more week, with yet another ranked opponent on tap as Villanova (2-0 CAA, 4-1 overall) — ranked No. 5 in the coaches’ poll and No. 6 in media poll — comes to Tom & Mary Casey Stadium on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., a week removed from handing James Madison its first CAA loss in nearly three years.
“All these games are decided by a couple plays,” senior running back Karl Mofor said. “Just having some good luck and the environment on our side, some good energy can always help.”
In a season full of gut-punch losses, UAlbany is coming off perhaps its toughest yet.
Last Saturday at William & Mary, the team made the trip to Williamsburg, Virginia undermanned with multiple players staying home due to COVID-19 protocols and started freshman Joey Carino at quarterback with usual starter Jeff Undercuffler unavailable, according to head coach Greg Gattuso — though the redshirt sophomore did make the trip and was dressed to play on the sideline.
Even so, the mobile Carino provided a spark at quarterback and Mofor topped 100 rushing yards for the first time all season as UAlbany stormed to a 21-3 halftime lead, only to see it all washed away in a flood of third-quarter mistakes as William & Mary reeled off four straight touchdowns before holding off a UAlbany comeback attempt in a 31-24 win.
“It’s a one-game sample,” Gattuso said. “I think that’s what everyone has to realize. I like to go through this process, and [Carino] played very well. His next opportunity, I hope he plays that well again.”
Carino, who passed for 244 yards and two touchdowns en route to CAA Rookie of the Week honors, suffered a knee injury that briefly knocked him out of the game before he returned to fuel the Great Danes’ late rally. He’s expected to play this week, but it’s Undercuffler who is planned to return to his starting role.
Gattuso acknowledged a plan to utilize both quarterbacks, with Carino expected an expanded role, depending on “game flow.”
“If Jeff’s out there lighting it up, I’m not going to take him out,” Gattuso said, “and if he struggles, then I’m not going to have a problem going to Joey a little bit.”
Carino’s performance against William & Mary and Undercuffler’s struggles since his 41-touchdown 2019 season bring up the dreaded specter of a quarterback controversy, something Gattuso is loath to talk about.
“I don’t like any controversy,” Gattuso said. “I like the best guy to play most of the snaps. But, at the end of the day, he ain’t the Queen of England. It’s no different than playing right guard. [Undercuffler] needs to perform to keep his job, and I think he will. I have faith in Jeff.”
Regardless of who’s taking the snaps, however, the Great Danes are happy for a long-awaited home game to change the team’s energy having gone through three road games and a bye week since the last time they played at Casey Stadium in their 16-14 loss to Rhode Island on Sept. 11.
“I’ve been trying to figure out if I’ve ever had a situation like this before,” Gattuso said. “I can’t put my finger on it. We’re all beat up and tired, and home games you get to regenerate.”
“It’s always good to be at home, in your comfort zone,” Mofor said. “After the rough month we just had, I think we need a home crowd and some momentum going on our side.”