ALBANY, N.Y. - The Central Connecticut State football team walked up the stadium steps, through the small crowd of Albany cheering fans and into the field house where its locker room was.
The Blue Devils were finally out of the wind and cold that pelted the field in New York’s capital throughout the afternoon. But the walk to get there was a silent one.
CCSU’s season had just come to a less than ideal ending. The Great Danes made sure of that on Saturday in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
It didn’t matter that the Blue Devils came into the game with a better record (11-1 to 8-4), a higher ranking (No. 17 to No. 25 in the STATS FCS Top 25) or a conference champion (CCSU won the NEC, Albany was second in the CAA). It didn’t matter that the Blue Devils hadn’t suffered a loss since Sept. 21 at FBS-opponent East Michigan, a stretch of eight straight wins, or that they were 11-0 against FCS opponents this season, including 6-0 against those teams on the road.
By the time the final whistle blew, the Great Danes had cruised past the Blue Devils 42-14, buoyed by 28 points in a decisive third quarter to secure their first-ever FCS playoff win and leave CCSU still looking for its first after reaching the tournament twice in three years.
“They were ready to play more than we were,” safety DJ Exilhomme said afterward. “It was two good teams out there and they came out on the good side of it.”
But as much as the totality of the third quarter hurt the Blues Devils, it was a 4 minute and 53 second span that began at the end of the second quarter and carried over into the second half that proved to be the costliest.
CCSU had held a 7-0 lead more much of the first half following Theo Zidor’s 31-yard first-quarter touchdown on the third drive of the game, but Albany forced a Blue Devils punt with 1:13 left in the second quarter and got a 17-yard run from Tyler Oedekoven. It set the Great Danes up with good field position at the CCSU 40 and they took advantage.
Jeff Undercuffler led Albany on an 8-play drive, completing passes of 4 yards to Karl Mofor, 1 and 11 yards to Jerah Reeves and 12 yards to Mofor before hitting Juwan Green for a 12-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left before halftime. All of a sudden it was 7-7 with the Great Danes getting the ball to start the third quarter.
“You can’t make mistakes when you’re a perceived underdog,” head coach Ryan McCarthy said. “The conference they’re in, week in and week out, it’s a battle and your execution has to be spot on. What you do as a staff has to be spot on. There’s very, very little room for error.”
Albany head coach Greg Gattuso said he thought that touchdown would “break the ice” for the Great Danes, who were outgained 207-102 total yards by the Blue Devils over the first 30 minutes of play. It did. And it ended up swinging all the momentum in Albany’s favor.
The Great Danes came out in the third quarter and needed just two plays to find the end zone again, capped off by a 40-yard touchdown pass from Undercuffler to Green. Albany never relinquished the lead from there. On their next drive, after a Joe Zoppii 37-yard field goal attempt was blocked, the Great Danes needed just three plays to go 45 yards for their third touchdown of the afternoon. This one was a 33-yard pass from Undercuffler to Reeves.
And all of a sudden, the Blue Devils went from a 7-0 lead to looking at a 21-7 deficit.
“We didn’t play our best game [Saturday] with the amount of people we had playing for us with people getting hurt,” Exilhomme said of the defense. “I feel like everyone came in with their A-game. We just had to play better.”
As Exilhomme alluded to, it didn’t help the amount of injuries CCSU had to deal with. The Blue Devils lost Dexter Lawson, Jr., the NEC-leader in interceptions with six, to an ankle injury midway through the second quarter. They also had to play two freshmen in Prince Boyd and Jadd Dolegala along the defensive line and even McCarthy said he had a number of players in different positions for the first time.
But the head coach also said that didn’t matter much. Every program at this time of the year has to deal with injuries.
Albany certainly didn’t seem to mind. Undercuffler ended up throwing for 304 yards and six touchdowns, the last three of which were an 11 yarder to LJ Wesneski, a 9-yard pass to Oedekoven and a 10 yarder to Mofor. Wesneski’s and Oedekoven’s scores were part of that 28-point third quarter. Green and Reeves both went over the 100-yard mark.
In a way, it was what CCSU wasn’t able to do in the beginning of the game.
The Blue didn’t score again until Aaron Winchester’s 4-yard touchdown run with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter. But they had the chance to put more pressure on the Great Danes early.
CCSU used up 8 minutes and 38 seconds of the first-quarter clock on its opening drive of the game and looked like Tyshaun James scored on a 8-yard run, but it was called back for holding. The Blue Devils had to settle for a 20-yard field goal attempt. It went wide left.
Three drives later, linebacker Tre Jones picked off Undercuffler, setting CCSU up with good field position at the Albany 32. But the Blue Devils managed to go just seven yards and turned the ball over on downs after Winchester rushed for no gain on 4th-and-3.
“Plays like that are momentum killers,” said Winchester said. “When you get a touchdown and it gets called back and the blocked field goal, momentum killers. It’s a players’ game. Coaches come up with schemes, but at the end of the day, players have to make plays.”
The Blue Devils finished the first quarter with 158 total yards, the Great Danes just 13, but only seven points to show for it. Albany ended up outgaining CCSU 404-347 overall, despite the Blue Devils running 11 more plays and winning the time of possession battle 34:22 -25:19
Winchester ended his college career completing 15-of-36 passes for 148 passing yards and an interception, while carrying the ball 12 times for 69 yards. James, the team’s leading receiver and one of its most dynamic playmakers, finished with just 33 yards of total offense (23 receiving, 10 rushing).
“I don’t think I did enough, honestly, in Aaron’s case to put him in a great position,” McCarthy said. “And when you play a defense of that caliber, you have to be precise in everything you do, to what you call and when you call it. There were some things I know that I didn’t do a good job of that and they had a lot to do with that too. We watch them on tape and I thought they were a better defensive line than what we played at Eastern Michigan.”
If Saturday showed anything, it’s that momentum can be a fickle thing in football. And for the Blue Devils, that proved to be the case over a 4 minute and 53 second span.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org