ALBANY — Making its first appearance in the FCS postseason since 2011, the UAlbany football program will need a tremendous effort to keep its season alive.
While UAlbany heads into Saturday’s 1 p.m. first-round playoff game at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium with plenty of momentum, the Great Danes are set to face a Central Connecticut squad that was one play away from bringing an undefeated record into the playoffs.
“When you look at the tape, you look for holes and things,” UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said of scouting Central Connecticut, “and I just don’t see a lot of holes.”
The lone blemish on Central Connecticut’s resume is a 34-29 loss suffered at Eastern Michigan, an FBS opponent that scored its go-ahead touchdown against the Blue Devils with seconds to play after blocking a punt. That mishap is all that stands between Central Connecticut — led by former UAlbany coaching staff member Ryan McCarthy — and an undefeated record through its first 12 games.
“If we don’t win this game, it will have nothing to do with anything we didn’t do,” Gattuso said. “It’ll be what they did do.”
What Central Connecticut, which outranks No. 25 UAlbany by eight spots in the media poll, does so well is limit opposing offenses. While quarterback Aaron Winchester leads a dangerous offense with his ability to pass and run the ball, Central Connecticut’s top strength is its defense. Central Connecticut ranks No. 2 in the FCS in yards allowed per game, leads the country in interceptions and defensive touchdowns scored, and ranks No. 10 in scoring defense. In its last eight games, Central Connecticut has only allowed three points in opening periods.
Central Connecticut won the Northeast Conference, while UAlbany took second place in the CAA. Overall, UAlbany brings an 8-4 mark and a three-game winning streak into the postseason, while 11-1 Central Connecticut has won its last eight games.
UAlbany redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Undercuffler was honored earlier this week as CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Gattsuo said the work ethic that helped lead to that was on display last week before the Great Danes’ game against Stony Brook.
The night before that 31-26 win at Stony Brook, Gattuso said associate head coach Keith Dudzinski had reported back that during bed check Undercuffler was watching something on his cell phone. Dudzinski figured Undercuffler was watching a movie, but the quarterback was actually watching some extra game film.
“That’s Jeff,” Gattuso said.
A finalist for this year’s Jerry Rice Award that goes to the FCS’ top freshman, Undercuffler has set school records with 33 touchdown passes and 2,966 passing yards. Undercuffler has completed 56.7% of his passes and has been intercepted seven times.
“We had a lot of faith in him,” Gattuso said, “and he works his tail off.”
Gattuso said Central Connecticut’s Winchester is similar in a lot of ways to Stony Brook quarterback Tyquell Fields, but that doesn’t necessarily make UAlbany’s job of slowing Winchester any easier.
“He’s really athletic,” UAlbany redshirt sophomore linebacker Danny Damico said. “He can run the ball well and he can pass it well, too.”
Winchester, a transfer from Georgia State of the FBS, leads Central Connecticut in passing and rushing. Winchester has completed 65.3% of his passes for 2,422 yards and 19 touchdowns, plus has rushed for 782 yards and eight scores.
Gattuso said the UAlbany defense will need to make plays in the Central Connecticut backfield to help negate Winchester’s impact.
“If we can’t get him on the ground,” Gattuso said, “it could be a long day.”
LOOKING FOR SUPPORT
While UAlbany put together a winning regular season and won five of six home games, home attendance has dropped this year for the Great Danes.
UAlbany’s average home attendance during its 3-8 2018 season was 4,516, while this year’s average attendance during the regular season was 4,191.
While there is more that factors into a team’s attendance than its record, Gattuso said a program needs to “earn fans,” and hopes the Great Danes took positive steps in that direction with this year’s regular season.
“You can’t ask people to come and spend their hard-earned money if you’re not playing well,” Gattuso said. “We’re playing well. We’re fun to watch — and I hope people come out and give us a chance, and come out and cheer for us Saturday. We need them.”