First Look

FIRST LOOK: MSU hosts Albany for first-ever matchup in playoffs


So often when the two FCS powers in the Treasure State host playoff games in December, the visiting opponent is unaccustomed to the frigid Montana weather.

The Great Danes of the University of Albany will not be surprised by a little winter when they play in Bozeman, Montana on Saturday. The Capital Region of New York received more than a foot of snow over the weekend.

“It’s fun to throw all these challenges at us when you’re getting ready for a second-round playoff game with over a foot of snow on the field and digging out and getting the staff in,” Albany sixth-year head coach Greg Gattuso said on a Colonial Athletic Association media conference call. “But we’re on track and we’re tough in Albany. We’re used to the cold weather and the snow.”

The Great Danes took Monday off (like they normally do) but Gatusso reportedly told the Albany Times-Union that his team planned to practice inside on Tuesday. Saturday’s forecast in the Gallatin Valley predicts a high of 39 degrees and mostly cloudy skies.

“We’re looking at it like it’s a vacation,” Gattuso said. “Believe me when I tell you, we’re not afraid of weather. No one on this team or staff is concerned with anything to do with weather. We’ll take whatever Montana has to throw at us. We know it’s a loud stadium and the weather’s going to be the weather. We’ve really got a tough group of guys. It’s not going to affect us in the least. It’s not even a factor.”

UAlbany earned the football program’s first-ever FCS playoff victory in the program’s 49-year history last week. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Undercluffer tied an FCS playoff single-game record by throwing six touchdowns, including four in the third quarter, to spur the Great Danes to a 42-14 win over No. 17 Central Connecticut State.

That victory moves the No. 25 team in the country to 9-4 this season. UA’s losses include a 38-21 loss at bowl-eligible Central Michigan, a team led by former Eastern Washington quarterback and Montana State offensive coordinator Jim McElwain. But Montana State fourth-year Choate said he didn’t have much in terms of dipping into the coaching well while preparing for a team that will travel more than 2,300 miles to Bozeman on Saturday.

“I’m not connected — I know this is going to sound crazy, but I’ve never been to the state of New York,” Choate said. “Most of the guys who play for Albany have probably never been to the state of Montana. There is not a lot of crossover.

Montana State head coach Jeff Choate (L) with offensive line coach Brian Armstrong (R) in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

“IF it were a team from the Southeast, I could reach out to some of my connections down there. A team from the Midwest, a team from the West…there is not a lot familiarity. But stylistically, there is some similarity.”

UAlbany dispatched of Bryant in its first home game this season, 45-3. The Bobcats beat Bryant by a field goal in Choate’s home debut in September of 2016. The Great Danes fell to 1-2 with a 38-35 overtime loss at Monmouth, the eventual Big South champion who fell 47-27 to No. 6 Montana in September. The Bobcats thrashed the Grizzlies 48-14 in Bozeman two weeks ago to return to the FCS playoffs for the second year in a row. The 9-3 hosts earned their first playoff bye since 2012.

Albany proceeded to win eight of its next 10, including posting a 6-2 mark in the Colonial Athletic Association. That run included wins over No. 9 Towson (38-21), Delaware (21-17) and New Hampshire ( 24-17) to essentially eliminate all three powers from playoff contention. The Great Danes capped their regular season with a 31-26 win over rival Stony Brook to punch their first ticket to the tournament since joining the CAA.

“This is a very good, sound football team who very clearly deserved to be in the tournament with the way they played in Round 1,” Choate said. “I think it’s going to be a very challenge matchup for us on Saturday.”


Location: Albany, New York

Nickname: Great Danes

Founded: 1844. The State University of New York at Albany, commonly referred to as University at Albany, SUNY Albany or UAlbany, is a public research university with campuses in the New York cities of Albany and Rensselaer and the Town of Guilderland, United States.

The university has three campuses: the Uptown Campus in Albany and Guilderland, the Downtown Campus in Albany, and the Health Sciences Campus in the City of Rensselaer, just across the Hudson River.

The university offer 50 undergraduate majors and 125 graduate degree programs. The university’s academic choices include new and emerging fields in public policy, homeland security, globalization, documentary studies, biotechnology, bio-instrumentation, and informatics.

Enrollment: The university has 17,743 students, including 13,508 undergraduates, and an endowment of $71.7 million.

Stadium: Bob Ford Field – The stadium, named for longtime Albany football coach Bob Ford, opened in 2013 as an 8,500-seat venue the year the Great Danes joined the Colonial Athletic Association. It also served as Ford’s 44th and final season as the only head coach in program history.

In six regular-season home games this fall, Albany averaged 4,191 fans. The Great Danes drew just 1,660 to watch the first playoff win in program history last weekend against Central Connecticut State.

The Coach

Greg Gattuso, sixth season at Albany

The former Penn State defensive lineman — he was a part of the Nittany Lions’ 1982 national championship team as well as a member of the 1981 PSU team that had an “unclaimed” national title — is an East Coast lifer. The 57-year-old began his career as a graduate assistant on Joe Paterno’s staff in 1984.

Albany head coach Greg Gattuso/ UA athletics

Gattuso, who is just the second head coach in the history of Albany football, spent most of the next decade coaching high school football in Pennsylvania. He joined Duqeusne’s staff as an assistant in 1992 and took over as the head coach in 1993.

Between 1994 and 2004, the Dukes won eight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles. Duquesne played in the Eastern College Athletic Conference bowls, winning the showdown between some of the Northeast’s best small schools twice.

For most of its football history, the University of Albany was under the direction of one head coach. Bob Ford started coaching the Great Danes when the team was still playing club football in 1970. From 1972 until 2013, Ford helped Albany navigate a transition from Division III to Division II — the Great Danes played as an independent from 1973 until 1996 — to the program’s first years in a conference (the Northeast Conference) and ultimately to Division I.

From 1997 until 2012, Ford led Albany to eight conference titles, including six in the Northeast Conference of the FCS. The school made its lone playoff appearance in 2011. Albany joined the Colonial Athletic Association in 2013, Ford’s last at the helm.

Gattusso took over. He went 24-32 over his first five seasons before this season’s nine-win breakthrough that includes the Great Danes making their first playoff appearance since joining one of the power conferences in the FCS. Last week, Albany extended its winning streak to four games by blasting Central Connecticut State for the first FCS Playoff win in school history.

“I think this team reflects their head coach in a lot of ways,” Choate said. “Coach Gattuso is a defensive guy, a tough guy. Very much a team that plays with a discipline and they make sure they do not beat themselves.

“They do not make a lot of mistakes. They do not give up a lot of explosive plays. They are Top 25 in the country in turnover margin. They are not penalized a lot. I think they are a very discipline team, a well-coached team that is playing really well right now.

“This is a team that played in an excellent league in the CAA, played a lot of tight games and found a way to win a lot of tight games because they didn’t beat themselves. I just think that’s a tribute to coaching.”

THE OFFENSE — Players to Watch

Jeff Undercuffler, quarterback, 6-5, 231, redshirt freshman — Undercluffer is having quite literally one of the best debut seasons by a quarterback in the history of the FCS.

The Delran, New Jersey product threw for 1,600 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior at Holy Cross Academy. He has already thrown for an FCS freshmen record 39 touchdowns this season

“He is doing some historic things in terms of the way he his throwing the ball,” Choate said. “Very confident, big arm, big, strong kid and the team rallies around him. As you watch him throughout the course of the year, his confidence has increased. He makes less and less mistakes every week and attacks the field with more confidence.”

All told, he has thrown for 3,270 yards (251.5 per game). He is completing 57.1 percent of his passes and has thrown eight interceptions. Of his 244 completions, 150 of them have gone to Juwan Green and Jerah Reeves.

“This offense is built around, run the ball, RPO, shots,” Choate said. “We have a five-game breakdown with 56 vertical shots. You do the math. These guys are going to attack you vertically. They have the personnel to do it and a quarterback with a big arm and confidence to do it.”

Karl Mofor

Karl Mofor, running back, 5-8, 225, junior — The strong, stout powerhouse rushed for more than 4,000 ayrds and 56 touchdowns during his high school career at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Maryland. He has continued to produce at Albany.

He entered his junior year with 1,151 yards and 11 touchdowns. This season, he has 1,249 ards and nine touchdowns on 252 bruising carries. He is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 95.3 yards per game.

“I really like this running back,” Choate said. “He is an excellent, tough runner. Sometimes, you see guys and think he is a good FCS back. I think this guy could translate to the next level. He has a low center of gravity, is a very tough tackle, bowling ball. He’s a tough guy to bring down.”

Juwan Green

Juwan Green, wide receiver, 6-0, 187, senior — The former junior college transfer is having a breakout final season for the Great Danes.

At Lackawanna (Pa.) College, he scored 11 all-purpose touchdowns. Last season, he caught 23 passes for 429 yards and four scores.

This season, he was a first-team All-CAA selection after catching 80 passes for 1,263 yards and 16 touchdowns.

“No. 11 (senior wide receiver Jerah Reeves) is a good player and he has 70 receptions but No. 4, I think he is special,” Choate said. “When he’s double covered, he’s not covered. Undercuffler has trust and confidence in this kid and he will go get it. He is a dude. I mean, 80 receptions, 16 touchdowns, I don’t care if you are playing Pop Warner, that is pretty impressive.”

The lightning fast outside receiver is averaging nearly 16 yards per catch and 97.2 yards per game.

“This guy is a legit NFL-type guy,” Choate said. “He has top-end speed, runs good routes, attacks the ball in the air. He is a major, major problem.”

THE DEFENSE – Players to Watch

Eli Mencer

Eli Mercer, edge, 6-1, 229, redshirt senior — When breaking down the film of UA’s season thus far, Choate said the Great Danes blitz at a lower percentage than any of the 12 previous opponents for the Bobcats this season.

“They are not a huge pressure team but they don’t have to be,” Choate said. “No. 12 (Mercer) has 14.5 sacks and their interior defensive line is twitchy. They are not overly big up front but they are very, very active.”

Albany has 92 tackles for loss this year, amounting to 332 negative yards for its opponents. That total would lead the Big Sky.

So would Mencer’s 23 tackles for loss and his 14.5 sacks.

“He’s longer and I think faster than (Sac State senior and first-team All-Big Sky defensive end George) Obinna (13.5 sacks) but he’s not as big,” Choate said. “If you get in third and extra long and this guy gets a one-on-one with a tackle, it’s going to be a problem.”

Mazon Walker

Mazon Walker, defensive tackle, 5-9, 268, sophomore — Choate said Albany’s defensive front is a direct reflection of their coach. And that shows in UA’s ability to make plays in opposing backfields.

Walker, a portly interior piece, is a big part of that.

I’m a d-line guy, Coach Gattuso is a d- line guy and his d-line plays well,” Choate said. “They are good players.

“They get a lot of negative plays and they don’t blitz a lot because they are capable of getting pressure with four guys.”

In his first year of significant action, Walker has 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks among his 40 total tackles.

Levi Metheny

Levi Metheny, linebacker, 6-0, 239, junior — Metheny, sophomore inside linebacker Danny Damico (6-foot, 233 pounds) and sophomore safety A.J. Mistler have all been tackling machines for a defensive unit giving up 23 points and 357 yards per game.

“Those inside linebackers, No. 44 and No. 45, they are thumpers and they play downhill in the run game,” Choate said. “That’s a problem in the run game because offensive line wise, what they want to try to do is create double teams and push to the next level. With those downhill linebackers, it makes it a challenge.”

Metheny leads the Great Danes with 113 tackles, including 59 solo stops and 6.5 tackles for loss. He also has two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Damico has 101 tackles, 54 solos, eight tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble. Mistler has 100 tackles, 46 solos, nine tackles for loss, a sack and two forced fumbles.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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