After a slow start in the final homecoming game on University Field, the Great Danes didn’t disappoint.
Senior tailback Drew Smith, the nation’s leading scorer, collected three touchdowns to help University at Albany bounce back from a 10-0 deficit and rally past St. Francis (Pa.), 36-13, Saturday.
UAlbany, which will move into a new stadium and leave the Northeast Conference in favor of the Colonial Athletic Association next season, looked flat early, but the Great Danes, spurred on by a large homecoming crowd, dominated the Red Flash in the second half.
The Great Danes (4-0, 6-1), ranked 24th in the country in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision Coaches Poll, took over sole possession of first place in the NEC after Duquesne lost to Central Connecticut State.
“I think it’s hard to beat anybody, and the best team doesn’t always win,” said UAlbany head coach Bob Ford, who was heading to Springfield College after the game to be inducted into the Pride’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
“In the first half, we didn’t play better than they did. We were kind of fortunate. I think our defense played really well overall, and in the second half, Drew Smith started to become Drew Smith.”
Smith, who entered the game with 12 touchdowns, including 11 rushing, tacked on three more running touchdowns to go along with 75 yards rushing and 51 yards receiving.
“We didn’t panic,” the Guilderlalnd High School graduate said about the slow start. “We knew they were good team, but we didn’t panic, and we stayed focused. Our defense eventually steamrolled them in the second half.”
“We made some adjustments,” said senior defensive lineman Ocieka Bakou, who made a key fumble recovery to snuff out a Red Flash drive. “We felt that all we had to do was make sure we did what we were supposed to do. We trusted our offense. For us, we didn’t look at the scoreboard. We played this game for our Purple Family, and we took the passion that they gave us. I got text messages from guys like Dave Nicodemi, who I haven’t seen since he was a senior and I was a freshman. I didn’t want to disappoint those guys. ”
Smith agreed that the homecoming crowd gave the Great Danes extra energy.
“On homecoming, there is always a lot of extra excitement, but this is the present. We wanted to perform for our alumni, and we wanted to showcase our program, and let those guys see how far we’ve come.”
St. Francis (2-3, 3-4) had never beaten UAlbany in 13 previous appearances, but the Red Flash looked strong early. The NEC’s top rushing offense kept the ball on the ground and marched all the way to the UAlbany 21 before settling for a Josh Thiel 38-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
St. Francis padded its lead the next time the Red Flash got the ball. This time, Saint Francis quarterback John Kelly connected on three key passes during the drive, including a 24-yard flip pass to Keion Wade after it appeared that Kelly was gong to be sacked.
Wade eventually broke loose on a 53-yard TD down the near sidelines and got a key seal block to help the Red Flash open a 10-0 cushion with 3:25 left in the opening period.
The Great Danes finally woke up in the second quarter. Smith, taking the snap from the Wildcat formation, scored on a three-yard run to cap an 81-yard drive, but Sean Kenny missed the PAT.
After Saint Francis came back to stretch its lead to 13-6 on a 44-yard field goal by Thiel, the Danes knotted the score on Smith’s three-yard TD run.
UAlbany took the momentum into the intermission when Kenny hit a 28-yard field goal as time expired at the end of the first half.
The second half was all UAlbany.
The Great Danes lost an excellent opportunity to score immediately following a 58-yard kickoff return by Clay Harris, when Smith fumbled the ball away, but Jake Meek, a backup quarterback/wide receiver, scored on a seven-yard keeper to give the Danes a 22-13 lead. It was his first collegiate touchdown.
After Bakou recovered a Saint Francis fumble, Smith scored his third TD of the game, on a 10-yard keeper.
Meek scored his second touchdown of the game late in the fourth quarter to clinch the game.
Cole King caught seven passes for 100 yards, and Ryan Kirchner added four catches for 58 yards for the Great Danes. Sophomore quarterback Will Fiacchi was not sharp early, but still finished 21-for-31 for 255 yards.
UAlbany is idle this week and returns to action Oct. 27 at Sacred Heart.
“We look at this as an improvement week, not a bye week,” said Smith. “We were happy to hear that Duquense lost and that we were alone in first place, but we want to win all our remaining NEC games and win the title on our own.”
St. Francis (Pa.) 10 3 0 0 — 13
UAlbany 0 16 13 7 — 36
SF—FG Thiel 38, 10:30.
SF—Wade 53 run (Thiel kick), 3:25.
UAlb—D.Smith 3 run (kick failed), 10:01.
SF—FG Thiel 44, 4:57.
UAlb—D.Smith 3 run (Kenny kick), 2:15.
UAlb—FG Kenny 27, :00.
UAlb—Meek 7 run (kick blocked), 8:12.
UAlb—D.Smith 10 run (Kenny kick), 4:42.
UAlb—Meek 38 run (Kenny kick), 1:41.
First downs 13 25
Rushes-yards 32-159 42-205
Passing 136 255
Comp-Att-Int 17-31-0 21-31-0
Return yards 0 46
Punts-avg. 7-36.1 4-33.5
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-2
Penalties-yards 3-25 6-36
Time of possession 30:01 29:59