There’s an easy way to win football games, and there’s a hard way to win them. The University at Albany chose the latter in its home opener Saturday on University Field.
The Great Danes built a 24-9 cushion with 2:06 remaining in the third quarter, but they needed junior linebacker Justin Brancaccio’s key defensive play on Central Connecticut State University’s two-point conversion pass late in the game to hold off the Blue Devils, 24-22.
Albany appeared to have the game won when junior quarterback Vinny Esposito hit classmate David McCarty with a screen pass that went for a 72-yard touchdown late in the third period.
“Any time you’ve got a kid like David McCarty, you’ve got to figure out a way to get the ball into his hands,” said Albany head coach Bob Ford. “Any time you’ve got a kid like like that, the other team is going to want to try to stack it up. We don’t really have a big-play receiver, so it’s a good idea to get McCarty the ball on passing plays like that, because he can make big plays.”
But following sophomore cornerback Dominique Rose’s interception of an Esposito pass with 14:14 left, the Blue Devils charged back and scored in just six plays. James Mallory, a junior tailback, took a pitch and scored on a six-yard touchdown. When Joe Izzo tacked on the PAT, CCSU was down by only eight, 24-16.
The teams traded quick possessions until the Blue Devils got the ball back on their own 20 with 4:45 to go.
Five completions by quarterback Hunter Wanket, coupled with a personal foul on the Great Danes, helped the Blue Devils score. Wanket completed the 80-yard drive with a swing pass to Tyler Rossnagle for a 14-yard TD with 55 seconds left.
That’s when Brancaccio stepped up to make the play of the game.
The Blue Devils lined up in a swinging gate formation, with four receivers lined up on the left side and a tight end set up behind them. Wanket tried to find a receiver cutting back to the weak side in the end zone, but Brancaccio stretched out at the last minute and tipped the pass away from Nick Colagiovanni.
“We had seen a similar formation and practiced against it, but they were trying something a little different,” said Brancaccio. “We had to make a quick adjustment. We pulled some linemen back. When I saw some guy release behind me, I broke toward him. Before the play, we knew that was going to be the game. They were either going to pull it off and tie the score, or we were going to suck it up. Nobody else was open, so I knew the ball was going to that guy. We just had to dig down deep. I was just at the right place at the right time.”
Even with Brancaccio’s heroics, the game wasn’t over. CCSU tried an onside kick using a special formation, but Jason Poore, who earlier caught his first collegiate touchdown pass, caught the ball, and the Danes took over on Blue Devils’ 49-yard line.
Central Connecticut still had all three of its timeouts left, however, and Albany still was forced to punt the ball back to the Blue Devils. Chris Lynch’s pooch punt went out of bounds on the Blue Devils’ four-yard line with only 30 seconds left.
Central Connecticut still completed three passes for 38 yards to move the ball to its own 42, but with six seconds left, the Blue Devils had no choice but to try a trick play. Wanket hit Mallory with a short pass, and the Mallory pitched the ball to offensive lineman Jese Castillo. There were two more pitches before the ball ended up back in Wanket’s hands, and he was finally tackled around midfield as the clock expired.
“There were probably six or seven keys plays in that game,” said Ford. “Certainly, Lynch’s quick kick was a big play. McCarty’s screen pass was a big play, and Justin Brancaccio made some big plays,” he said.
“I’m pleased with the win. It’s hard to beat anybody, even a team that might be inferior to yours. This was a good team we played. It’s a good thing we gave up field goals instead of touchdowns in the first half, or we might have been in trouble. I’m just happy to get out of here with a win.”
Albany, which played its first five games on the road, evened its overall record at 3-3 and improved its Northeast Conference mark to 2-0. CCSU fell to 1-1 and 4-2.
Izzo’s field goal with 10:29 left in the first quarter put the Blue Devils in front, 3-0.
The Great Danes scored on Esposito’s one-yard sneak, and Lynch, who got two chances to kick his PAT because of a CCSU penalty, made the score 7-3.
Central Connecticut 6 3 0 13 — 22
Albany 7 10 7 0 — 24
CC — Izzo 24 FG.
A — Esposito 1 run (Lynch kick).
CC —Izzo 36 FG.
A — Lynch 19 FG.
CC — Izzo 26 FG.
A — Poore 11 pass from Esposito (Lynch kick).
A — McCarty 72 pass from Esposito (Lynch kick).
CC — Mallory 6 run (Izzo kick).
CC — Rossnagle 14 pass from Wanket (pass failed).
First downs 22 21
Rushes-yards 44-160 40-139
Passing yards 209 254
Passing 18-29-0 17-26-2
Return yards 15 17
Fumbles lost 1 1
Punts-avg. 3-31.3 3-42.0
Penalties-yards 3-12 6-56