The Big Picture: Eighty-One Yards To Stay Alive


Nov. 25 marks the 18-year anniversary of one of the most repeated rants in football history. The Big Picture pays early tribute to Jim Mora Sr. with this Playoffs?! Edition. 

Leaving No Doubt

And here we are, just one week remaining in the 2019 regular season, and leading the Colonial Athletic Association’s pursuit of the FCS Playoffs are:

  • James Madison: The preseason favorite and a longtime standard-bearer not just for the CAA but FCS as a whole, the Dukes sit one win away from a perfect conference season.
  • Villanova: The Wildcats hit a snag after a 6-0 start and peak in the top 5 of the polls, but are building momentum to finish the campaign. 
  • Towson: Picked to finish second in the preseason poll, the Tigers have overcame one setback after another to put themselves in a great spot near season’s end. They won their seventh on Saturday in a rout of William & Mary, setting up a home finale with Elon.
  • Maine: The 2018 champion rallied from a slow start and is on fire at the right time, winning its fourth in a row on Saturday.
  • UAlbany: Wait ... UAlbany?

Picked to finish last in the CAA preseason poll, UAlbany’s season-long defiance of expectations continued into Week 12. A 24-17 defeat of New Hampshire guarantees the Great Danes an above-.500 finish, and puts them in sole possession of second place in the Colonial. 

But is it enough to guarantee the Playoffs? 

“All of our upperclassmen were on a football team a couple years ago [in 2016 that finished 7-4]...we felt we were a legitimate playoff team and we did not get in,” UAlbany coach Greg Gattuso said on Oct. 21, when the Great Danes sat at 5-3. “So our kids understand, you have to win as many games as can then put it in the hands of a committee you don’t really know.” 

Last season’s precedent suggests seven wins total, five coming from the CAA gauntlet, is sufficient to earn a berth. There are impressive wins, most notably a road defeat of Towson in which the CAA’s third-most prolific offense put up 38 points. 

The offensive balance is part of what has made UAlbany successful -- all season, and again in Week 12. Karl Mofor ran for two touchdowns, and Jeff Undercuffler, who came into the weekend leading the nation in touchdown passes, tacked on his 32nd via a game-winner. 

Saturday’s victory over New Hampshire marked the Great Danes’ second one-possession emergence from a defensive struggle. They have proven they can put up big points, but have the talent on the other side of the ball in Eli Mencer, Levi Matheny, Mazon Walker, Tyler Carswell, Josh Wynn and so on, to survive a slog.

Even the losses impress. Beyond having the second-fewest in the deepest conference in the FCS, the two defeats in non-conference came in overtime against Monmouth, which secured an auto-bid with the Big South Conference championship on Saturday; and Central Michigan, which is still in the hunt for the Mid-American Conference championship.     

The resume already speaks for itself, but a win over rival Stony Brook in the Empire Clash removes any doubt come Selection Sunday. 

81 Yards To Stay Alive

Maine preserved its late-season charge for a postseason berth Saturday in Orono with a win that can be best described as a microcosm for the Black Bears’ entire season.

Rhode Island – a two-win team that, after Saturday’s four-point decision, is 26 points in five games off of being in the playoff chase itself – jumped to a two-touchdown lead. Things looked bleak for the host Black Bears with a 27-13 deficit and just 9:52 to go.

But in a fashion similar to it storming back from a 2-5 record more than midway through the campaign, Maine rallied in a flurry. Emmanuel Reed and Jo Fitzpatrick capped successive scoring drives just over five minutes apart.

Rhode Island retook the lead on a C.J. Carrick field goal, setting up the ultimate gut-check possession: 1:49 and 81 yards to go. The hope of the playoffs at stake.

Right out of the break, Joe Fagnano came out dealing, first 44 yards to Devin Young, then 12 and 15 to Fitzpatrick and Jacob Hennie. 

But given all he’s accomplished in his career at Maine, who else was going to catch the game-winner except Earnest Edwards? 

Maine heads into Rivalry Week gunning for a return to the Playoffs in the most literal sense possible. 

The Black Bears’ 116-year rivalry with New Hampshire awards the winner one of the most unique trophies in college football, the Brice-Cowell Musket. Should they claim it for a second consecutive season – a feat Maine has not accomplished since 2001 and 2002 -- the Musket doubles as a key to the Playoffs.

A Season For The Record Books

Shane Leatherbury catching his 10th and 11th touchdowns of the season for the second-most scoring receptions in a season ever at Towson should come as little surprise. The Tigers’ leading pass-catcher has been marvelous all year, and he and roommate Tom Flacco will go down as one of the greatest duos in program history. 

But following Saturday’s 31-10 romp over William & Mary, special recognition is in order for Yeedee Thaenrat. 

He came into the season looking like he would primarily handle goal-line and short-yardage situations, complementing All-CAA back Shane Simpson. Simpson’s knee injury in September put a heavier workload on Thaenrat’s shoulders. 

His production as an every-down back has steadily climbed, and in Week 12, he went off for 158 yards and a touchdown. That score’s significant, as it gives him 14 for the season – seventh-most in a single Towson season all-time. 

Considering the line of outstanding running backs to have passed through that program just in Rob Ambrose’s time at the helm, that’s a remarkable accomplishment for Thaenrat. 

A win in Week 13 over Elon would send the Tigers into the postseason with momentum comparable to Thaenrat on one of his runs. They currently have taken four of the last five, including three straight in CAA play. Beating the Phoenix shouldn’t just ensure Towson a spot in the Playoffs, but could potentially yield a Round of 16 home game. 

Dan The Man

These final weeks of the regular season are not just about playoff jockeying. Awards season is just around the corner, and the CAA boasts contenders for each of the national individual honors. 

In its eighth win of the campaign -- likely assuring it a postseason berth -- Villanova got five touchdowns from quarterback Dan Smith. 

His four passing scores in the 35-7 romp over Long Island give Smith 26 on the season with the Battle of the Blue still to play. The throwing deluge Smith unloaded on the Sharks offered a nice contrast in his all-around skill set, one week after he ran wild in a pivotal win over Richmond. 

Should Smith replicate his four passing-touchdown showing in next week’s Battle of the Blue, he will join 2014 Walter Payton Award winner John Robertson in the elite 30-10 touchdown club. Regardless if he hits that milestone, Smith’s 36 total scores are the most among 2019 Payton Award contenders. 

The Dukes Are Kings

The rest of the CAA hopefuls play one more game then wait for Selection Sunday. Not James Madison. The Dukes locked up the automatic berth into the Playoffs with a 48-6 blowout of Richmond. 

More importantly, James Madison accomplished one of its team goals by claiming an outright CAA championship. How it’s done so amid this season of collective chaos make the 2019 campaign all the more remarkable. 

“We try not to worry about what’s going on outside of our locker room,” James Madison quarterback Ben DiNucci said ahead of week 12. “But it’s kind of crazy Saturdays after we play to pull up the scores around the CAA. It seems like every week, everyone beats up on each other.”

Avoiding the mayhem that has gotten to every other program in the Colonial at some point might be the quintessential testament to how special this James Madison squad has been. The Dukes can advance to the Playoffs with an 11-game winning streak, their lone blemish coming in Week 1 against a West Virginia team that beat nationally ranked Kansas State in Week 12. 

“Early on, it was an adjustment for everybody,” first-year Dukes coach Curt Cignetti said in his postgame press conference. “The fourth quarter [against] Villanova on, we’ve been fairly dominant.” 

That’s one way to put it. Since facing a one-score deficit against the Wildcats on Oct. 12, James Madison’s outscored its opponents 188-42. 

The Dukes ready for the final week of the regular season on a red-hot streak -- and the only thing cooling them off, for now, is the Gatorade bath players gave Cignetti after the championship-clinching win. Cignetti called it, “Pretty darn cold.” 

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