UAlbany's Defense Is Flexing Its Muscle At The Perfect Time

In a season with running back Karl Mofor leading the Colonial Athletic Association in rushing, quarterback Jeff Undercuffler leading the nation in passing touchdowns, and wide receivers Juwan Green and Jerah Reeves making one spectacular grab after another, the UAlbany offense garnering attention stands to reason. 

But in the first quarter of the Great Danes’ first round FCS Playoffs matchup with Central Connecticut State, the 31.3-point per game offense’s first five possessions went: 

  • Three plays, seven yards, punt 
  • Three plays, zero yards, interception in UAlbany territory 
  • Three plays, six yards, punt
  • Six plays, 22 yards, punt
  • Six plays, 27 yards, punt 

UAlbany did not even cross the 50-yard line until its sixth possession, late in the second quarter. A Central Connecticut State defense that ranked No. 15 in the nation in points allowed showed why it went undefeated against FCS competition in the regular season. 

But the UAlbany defense? It’s pretty darn good, too. It was critical to getting the Great Danes into the FCS Playoffs for just the second time in program history, and its Herculean first half powered UAlbany to the school’s first-ever playoff win. 

“When our offensive explodes like that,” UAlbany coach Greg Gattuso said, referring to Undercuffler’s six-touchdown day. “Everyone wants to talk about the quarterback and our receivers and those skill guys on offense. But our defense held the fort. 

“If we didn’t dig our heels in going into the red zone, like we have all year -- we’re a pretty good red-zone defense,” he continued, noting the hole the Great Danes avoided. “They’re huge situations in a game. That thing could have been worse than 7-0 at the end of the quarter. And I think the defense deserves a lot of credit.” 

Before the offensive flood gates opened in the second half, UAlbany’s defense held Central Connecticut State in check. It’s not just that the Great Danes limited the Blue Devils to seven first-half points that showed this defense at its best, but how it happened. 

The Blue Devils’ opening drive moved into the red zone but UAlbany forced a field-goal attempt that went wide. Coming off the interception in Great Danes territory, CCSU had third-and-2 at the 25-yard line. 

Tackling machine Levi Metheny stuffed Enyce Walker for a one-yard loss; Nick Griffin stopped explosive Blue Devils quarterback Aaron Winchester on fourth down. Those are the kind of huge moments to which Gattuso referred -- and they have been the M.O. for a defense that has played nothing but elimination games for the past month. 

The Great Danes offense has been exciting through 2019, but defense defined many of the critical wins down the stretch of the regular season. 

UAlbany’s defense hasn’t been entirely overshadowed. Eli Mencer heads into the second round matchup at Montana State with 13.5 sacks, most in the CAA, and finally included among the Buck Buchanan Award contenders.

Mencer came up big again against CCSU, getting a sack, an interception and a quarterback hurry. 

But the Great Danes defense has solid across the board, from the line to the secondary, throughout the critical late-season stretch. 

The playoff win marked the third time in UAlbany’s last four outings that it held an opponent to fewer than 20 points. 

None of those three performances followed the same script. Against New Hampshire on Nov. 16, the Wildcats scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions. 

The Great Danes responded by forcing four consecutive punts and picking off two passes; one from Josh Wynn, one from Hayden Specht. 

Specht’s interception made five different players with a pick on the season for UAlbany; Mencer’s against CCSU made it six. Tyler Carswell, Wynn and Metheny all have multiple interceptions. 

In a 21-17 defeat of Delaware, Mencer and Wynn forced fumbles that Nick Griffin and Kareem Gibson recovered. 

Metheny’s been an absolute heat-seeker at linebacker all season, leading UAlbany with 113 tackles and tied for 18th-most in the nation. Against CCSU with dual-threat quarterback Winchester, Damico led the way with 12 tackles. 

The versatility of the UAlbany defense is a reflection of the offenses it had to face in the CAA. 

“One week we play against Tom Flacco, the next week we play a big, pocket quarterback,” Gattuso said. “In our league, [Joe] Fagnano at Maine and Vito Priore [at Rhode Island] -- we’ve got good quarterbacks we deal with every week.” 

The Flacco-quarterbacked Towson offense recorded just 280 yards of offense on the Great Danes, indicative of an afternoon in which Gattuso said “the stats are of straight domination.” 

A Carswell interception of Priore and Metheny’s forced fumble at the goal line were both crucial to UAlbany’s win over Rhode Island. 

In one instance after another, UAlbany’s defense answered the call in 2019. Frigid temperatures and another challenge at quarterback, Tucker Rovig, await the Great Danes at Montana State. In a season when the UAlbany offense has so often stolen the show, keeping this historic run going will again be the Great Danes defense’s opportunity to step up. 

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