The Albany Great Danes have already outperformed their placement in the CAA’s preseason poll this season. After being pegged to bring up the rear in the league this summer, Albany has compiled a 5-4 overall record and a 3-2 mark in the conference that is currently good for fourth in the 12-team CAA. However, the expectations have been adjusted accordingly, and the Danes are now in the midst of a playoff push, one that is more than welcomed by sixth-year head coach Greg Gattuso.
“Everybody’s in the same boat for the most part,” Gattuso said of the CAA’s depth of playoff-contending teams on the conference’s media teleconference Monday. “Everybody still thinks they’re fighting for the playoffs and we’re all trying to win games to get in the hunt.”
The 4-5 Delaware Blue Hens are Albany’s next opponent, and they find themselves on the verge of virtual elimination from that hunt after absorbing a narrow 31-24 defeat at Towson last Saturday. The Hens worked their way into a 24-24 tie with their regional rival before the Tigers’ Yeedee Thaenrat punched it in for a 2-yard touchdown run that would be the deciding blow with 4:54 to play.
Delaware followed Thaenrat’s score with a late-game drive in which it marched from its own 25-yard-line to the Towson 16, where it faced a decisive 4th-and-4 down by a touchdown. Quarterback Nolan Henderson, who was making his complete return from a concussion sustained at Elon in October, miraculously extended a play that was broken from the start. Henderson scampered for the better part of 15 seconds of game time, finding an alley to run after going as far back as the Towson 45. However, after the extensive and frenzied scrambling, he said afterward, he lost track somewhat of the line-to-gain, sliding inches shy of the first-down marker in a long turnover-on-downs that ended UD’s day.
While Henderson has expressed regret for his split-second decision to slide at all given the fourth-down situation, a Towson defender was bearing down on him and his newly-cleared head. Delaware coach Danny Rocco recognizes that a dive by Henderson that stretched inches further could have extended the game for UD, but he is also keenly aware that the Blue Hens’ defense was not up to standard in the first half and is thus plenty culpable for the deficit that led to the loss. Towson led 24-14 at intermission.
“We came out in the second half and we really looked like a different defense out there,” Rocco said after Tuesday’s practice. “We gave up one score in the second half [Thaenrat’s run].”
The key moving forward will be translating the defensive intensity from the second half at Towson to the opening kickoff versus Albany at Delaware Stadium, Rocco agreed.
“We’ve gotta be able to come out here and start fast this week and play a more complete game defensively.”
The Blue Hens did recover two Towson fumbles, both of which were forced by redshirt junior Tim Poindexter. A similar output in the takeaway department can only help the cause against an Albany offense that is third in the CAA in scoring with 33.3 points per game. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Undercuffler, who made his first-career start against Delaware last year and who was named to the Jerry Rice Award (FCS freshman of the year) watch list this week, commands a Great Danes passing game that is also third in the CAA in passing yards per game (269.1). Undercuffler set a program record for touchdown passes in a season by raising his 2019 total to 28 with four tossed against Maine.
“The thing I love about him the most is he throws that pick-six (in the 47-31 loss to Maine a week ago) and he recovers immediately and comes back,” Gattuso said of Undercuffler, whom he described as a developing gunslinger. “He made a couple mistakes, but he came right back and started making good throws again.”
“He understands he’s gonna make mistakes because we put him under the spotlight … and that short memory is what I think makes a great quarterback … He’s got that mental toughness, and that’s what I know makes me feel like he’s really on track to being a really great quarterback.”
Delaware will need to give Undercuffler and the CAA’s No. 2 rusher, running back Karl Mofor (87.7 rushing yards per game), a variety of looks, said Rocco.
“At this stage in the week, we’re looking at a couple different things, but we definitely gotta cover them down the field. I think you’re gonna have to be willing to give them some underneath things so that they don’t get in behind you,” the third-year UD coach explained, highlighting Albany’s improved quick-strike ability compared to last year.
“And everybody’s played them a little bit differently, but most of the teams that press and play real close, they [Albany] take shots down the field. So, we’re probably gonna have to mix up playing off coverage and then press coverage with some blitzes. But we’re gonna try to be as multiple as we can be.”
Meanwhile, Delaware’s offensive line, which has struggled all season to keep Henderson and veteran quarterback Pat Kehoe upright (allowing a whopping 30 sacks on the 2019 campaign), will have its hands full with Albany’s Eli Mencer bringing the heat. The 6-1, 229-pound redshirt senior linebacker out of Altoona, Pennsylvania leads the CAA with 9.5 total sacks on the year.
Slowing Mencer will be a significant factor in the Blue Hens’ effort to stay alive in the crowded picture of CAA teams angling for a spot in the FCS playoffs.
On being faced with a de facto elimination game this week against a team that has just as much to play for this November, Rocco summarized, “I think that’s the way a lot of [CAA] teams are going into this week. We certainly wished we were in better position; we certainly expected to be in better position. A lot of factors have gotten us into the position that we’re in right now, but having said that, there’s a lot of teams in our league that are in the same position. Whoever comes out of this weekend with a fifth or a sixth win is going to be very meaningful heading into next weekend as teams will try to get their sixth or seventh wins. And there aren’t gonna be a lot of teams in our league this year [that] get to eight [wins]. Usually, there are. Usually, at least three or four. This year, there may be two. So everyone’s still in that dogfight here in these last three weeks. There’s a lot of games against teams that have very similar records or plus-one, plus-minus, and that’s how those things will get balanced out. Big game here for both teams.”