Despite not being circled on the calendar in the preseason, when UAlbany and Morgan State tangle on September 23, it will be a matchup of two early FCS surprises in the east.
The Great Danes had reason for optimism entering 2023 with the return of CAA Football Offensive Rookie of the Year quarterback Reese Poffenbarger, but they were still picked 11th of 15 in the CAA’s preseason poll after a 3-8 finish a year ago.
To begin this season, UAlbany handled Fordham (which later beat FBS Buffalo) 34-13 in Week 0 before the Danes soldiered on to consecutive FBS games. In both contests, UAlbany was competitive despite falling, testing Marshall in a 21-17 loss and pushing Hawaii in a 31-20 decision. The Great Danes held Marshall scoreless through the first half and were tied 17-17 with Hawaii at the half.
After a long flight to and from Hawaii with the accumulation of 120 minutes played against FBS competition, UAlbany’s bye on Saturday prior to its game at Morgan State falls at an ideal time.
“We knew when we scheduled this [Hawaii] game eight years ago that we were gonna have to have a bye week after,” UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso told HERO Sports. “It’s virtually impossible to travel back and play [right away].”
UA’s open date not only offers it an opportunity to alleviate plane ride fatigue but also affords it more time to prepare for Morgan State. The Bears upset then-ranked Richmond 17-10 in Week 1. MSU followed that up with a near FBS win at Akron — the finish was spoiled by Akron’s game-winning fumble-recovery touchdown with under a minute to play.
Because Gattuso was unable to travel with the Great Danes to Hawaii due to an illness, he had additional time on his hands to watch Morgan State as an upcoming foe. He was duly impressed.
“They should have won the Akron game,” Gattuso said of the Bears. “It’s unfortunate they had a fumble so late, but they had played a really good football game, had Akron beat. In our minds, they beat them. We know that they have that type of team.”
Morgan State plays its home opener versus Towson in the Battle for Greater Baltimore on Saturday before UAlbany comes to town. Through two games, the Bears lead the MEAC in rush defense (49.5 YPG).
“They’re vastly improved,” Gattuso said. “The thing that strikes me the most is how well coached they are, and you see it on the field.”
Morgan State was selected to finish fourth in the six-team MEAC, though it did pick up one first-place vote.
Outside of Poffenbarger, the Bears will have to contend with a pair of UAlbany defensive linemen in Anton Juncaj and AJ Simon. Juncaj and Simon have five and four sacks on the season, respectively, to rank top-10 nationally in sacks per game, which adjusts for UA’s advantage having played a Week 0 game.
As it rests up for what has turned into an intriguing non-conference game, UAlbany understands it must finish games better, starting with the swing down to Baltimore.
“They’re gonna be hyped up to be home,” Gattuso said about MSU. “It’ll be a big game for us. Obviously, we’re coming off a couple tough losses, and we’re gonna have to go in there and play a much better football game, more complete game than we’ve played up to this point.”