The scheduled postgame fireworks started a little early for the University at Albany football team making its debut under new head coach Greg Gattuso.
Trailing, 13-0, after three quarters, the Great Danes rallied and surged past Holy Cross, 14-13, when Neil Morrison returned a fumble 79 yards for the winning score with just 44 seconds left in the season opener Saturday night before 6,748 fans at Bob Ford Field.
On a third-and-six play from the UAlbany 21-yard line, Gabe Guild bulled his way up the middle, but on a hard hit, both the ball and his helmet popped up in the air. Morrison scooped the ball up and ran all the way for the score. Patrick Toole’s PAT ended up being the winning margin.
Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore said that Guild, who ran for 75 yards before the final play, suffered a concussion, and he was taken off the field in a stretcher.
“Honestly, I was just doing what I was supposed to do,’ said Morrison, a 5-foot-11 sophomore free safety. “The ball presented itself. We needed a big play, and I just picked the ball right off the ground. I saw the ball and the helmet pop out, and I knew it was a clean play. I don’t think I ever ran faster than that to the end zone. Thank God for all those wind sprints.”
Gattuso, taking over for the legendary Bob Ford, who coached the Great Danes for the last 41 years, was ecstatic about guiding his team to an opening-game win.
“I had the guys on the sidelines, and I was telling them that we needed a big play,” he said. “I told them somebody had to make a big play, and the next thing you know, there’s Neil running down the sidelines. I never expected a [79-yard] fumble play like that.”
The Great Danes couldn’t execute offensively for much of the game, until late.
“We were definitely very frustrated during the first three quarters,” he said. “Our third-down conversions [6-for-14] were terrible. But it’s a long season. I think we may have converted some guys tonight. It was a big win, and a critical win for what we want to do this season. I just hope our fans keep coming. I almost left myself when it was 13-0.”
Gilmore said the loss was hard to take.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed with this loss. This is a game we should have and could have won. It shouldn’t have even been close,” he said. “It shouldn’t have come down to a play at the end of the game.”
The Great Danes scored their only offensive touchdown with 11:05 left in the game, when senior quarterback Will Fiacchi hooked up with tight end Brian Parker on a 12-yard TD pass. It capped a 62-yard drive that was dominated by tailback Omar Osbourne, who ran for 85 yards on 20 carries.
Holy Cross connected on a pair of field goals by Connor Fitzgerald, one from 26 yards and the other from 23, to take a 6-0 lead with 9:53 remaining in the half.
The Crusaders took command with a 45-yard drive right before halftime to open up a 13-0 cushion.
Quarterback Peter Pujals rolled right and hit Jake Wieczorek in the near corner of the end zone for a one-yard TD pass, and Fitzgerald tacked on the PAT for Holy Cross.
The Crusaders dominated the stats at the half, outgaining the Great Danes, 243-121, with Guild rushing for 64 yards and Pujals tossing for 143 more.
Fiacchi completed 19 of 31 passes for 182 yards, while Parker finished with six catches for 87 yards.
Freshman Josh Gontarek also played a solid game for the Great Danes with six catches for 67 yards.
Holy Cross 3 10 0 0 — 13
UAlbany 0 0 0 14 — 14
HC — Fitzgerald 26 FG.
HC — Fitzgerald 23 FG.
HC — Wieczorek 1 pass from Pujals (Fitzgerald kick).
UA — Parker 12 pass from Fiacchi (Toole kick).
UA — Morrison 79 fumble recovery (Toole kick).
Holy Cross UAlb
First downs 18 16
Rushes-yards 41-117 29-81
Passing yards 323 182
Passing 23-42-0 19-31-0
Fumbles-lost 3-2 0-0
Punting 4-41.0 7-37.9
Penalties-yards 4-21 3-32