Albany

Breaking down UAlbany football’s tumble from playoff success in 2019 to 0-6 start in 2021

UAlbany football head coach Greg Gattuso's team is off to an 0-6 start this season, less than two years removed from the program's first-ever NCAA FCS playoff win in 2019.
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UAlbany football head coach Greg Gattuso's team is off to an 0-6 start this season, less than two years removed from the program's first-ever NCAA FCS playoff win in 2019.

ALBANY — It’s coming up on a month shy of two years since one of the crowning achievements in UAlbany football history.

On Nov. 30, 2019, the Great Danes put on a show for their home fans at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium, rolling to a 42-14 win over Central Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA FCS playoffs. It was the first FCS playoff win in UAlbany history, and the cap to a brilliant run of six wins in seven games that saw a high-flying offense catapult the Great Danes into the postseason.

Since then, though, not much has gone right for head coach Greg Gattuso’s team.

The second-round playoff loss at Montanta State a week later wasn’t particularly unexpected, but it also heralded the start of a string of negative results. Since its playoff win over Central Connecticut, UAlbany has won just one of 11 games — a span that now reaches nearly two full calendar years — and the Great Danes carry a nine-game overall losing streak and a 0-6 mark this season into Saturday’s 1 p.m. home game with a Maine team that handed UAlbany the first of its nine consecutive losses.

What precipitated the fall? 

“You can say whatever you want. At the end of the day, it’s just excuses,” wide receiver Tyler Oedekoven said. “We’ve got to go out there, play our game, play a better brand of football.”

Here’s a look at three compelling factors behind UAlbany’s struggles:

OFFENSIVE REGRESSION

In 2019, UAlbany’s 9-5 season was fueled by an explosive, balanced attack on offense. Quarterback Jeff Undercuffler authored a breakout season that rewrote the program record book with 3,543 passing yards and 41 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. Meanwhile, running back Karl Mofor powered his way to 1,290 rushing yards.

On the whole, UAlbany’s 2019 offense averaged 31.36 points while racking up 387.8 yards of offense (256.4 passing, 131.4 rushing) per game.

After spending 2020 on the sidelines with the CAA canceling its fall season due to restrictions brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic, those numbers began to dip in the Great Danes’ four-game spring season to 18.75 points and 290.8 yards (172.3 passing, 118.5 rushing).

Through six games this fall, those numbers have cratered to 15.5 points and 254.7 yards (195.7 passing, 59.0 rushing), meaning that scoring has been cut by more than half and total offense has dropped off by 34.3% since 2019.

“We need to get some first downs,” Gattuso said. “Our third-down conversion rate [30.7% this season, 11th in the CAA] is not good. If we move the sticks a little better, that’s going to lead to more points and more touchdowns.”

It’s been a particular struggle for Undercuffler, who went from averaging 253.1 passing yards per game in 2019 to 174.9 yards during his spring and fall 2021 campaigns. A rebuilt offensive line and constantly shuffling receiving corps have hampered Undercuffler, whose touchdown-to-interception ratio has gone from better than 4-to-1 in 2019 to nearly even (nine TDs, eight INTs) over his last eight games.

Meanwhile, the running game has been increasingly over-reliant on the ever-steady Mofor. The rugged runner was the team’s feature back in 2019, with his 1,290 rushing yards representing 70.1% of the team’s total rushing output while he garnered 58% of the Great Danes’ rushing attempts, but the team still had a legitimate No. 2 option in the backfield with Alex James.

Over the last two seasons, the reliance on Mofor has increased. He represented 97% of the team’s rushing yards and 79.2% of its carries during the spring and, despite struggling to get going through much of the fall, the senior’s 385 net rushing yards through six games actually exceeds UAlbany’s entire team rushing total thanks to yardage lost on sacks and fumbles.

When it comes to running back usage over UAlbany’s past 10 games, the Great Danes have relied almost exclusively on Mofor. Since the start of the spring season, the senior has carried the ball 224 times. All other running backs on the UAlbany roster have combined to carry the ball precisely 12 times.

“We’ve got to get another back going,” Gattuso said.

SPECIAL TEAMS CALAMITIES

Gattuso said this week that he’d be perfectly fine if the special-teams battle ended up as a net neutral, which is basically where the Great Danes were in 2019.

Since that season, it’s been anything but.

“That’s the easiest place to save points, and we’ve given up points in multiple games,” Gattuso said. “You want to break even in special teams.”

Kicker Dylan Burns has been relatively reliable, but the rest of the special-teams units have struggled. The return game has been a non-factor for the Great Danes since the spring 2021 season started, with no punt return longer than 11 yards and no kickoff return longer than 35 yards during that stretch. Meanwhile, UAlbany’s punt coverage unit has allowed three touchdowns over the last 10 games.

Then, there are the inexcusable calamities. Dropped snaps, blocked kicks and mental blunders have abounded in the kicking game.

Three of UAlbany’s losses this season — to Rhode Island, William & Mary and Villanova — are directly attributable to points surrendered by the Great Danes’ special teams on botched plays. Even the Great Danes’ lone win during the last two seasons, which came in the spring opener at New Hampshire, required a late goal-line stand to preserve victory. New Hampshire was gifted ideal field position for its final drive due to a bizarre illegal kick penalty following a dropped snap by punter Sean Ralls.

LEVERAGE POINTS

It’s a common refrain in the CAA that the top-to-bottom depth of the league leads to plenty of close games, and the Great Danes are certainly familiar with that.

Two years ago, UAlbany played seven games decided by one possession (eight points or fewer), posting a 5-2 record in those contests and winning the last four such games, including three straight over Delaware, New Hampshire and Stony Brook to close the regular season and catapult the Great Danes into an at-large playoff berth.

The 24-20 win over New Hampshire to start the spring season extended UAlbany’s win streak in one-possession games to five, and since then, it’s been a complete reversal of fortune.

Over UAlbany’s last nine games, six matchups have been decided by a touchdown or less. All of them have been league games, and the Great Danes have lost every one of them.

“We see our mistakes,” defensive end Anthony Lang said. “It’s a lot of the same ones that are making us fall in close games.”

“There’s no real answer to it,” Gattuso said. “You’ve got to make plays in critical moments.”

Categories: College Sports, Sports

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