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Syracuse football vs. Albany preview: Q&A with The Daily Gazette

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What’s so ‘Great’ about the Danes? Let’s find out.

Albany v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Well, last week’s Syracuse Orange football game was... regrettable, to say the least. But there’s still more season ahead. At least on Saturday we stand a good chance of coming away with a win, when the Albany Great Danes come to town for the first time (in football).

Since we’re not Albany fans, we went ahead and asked someone that knows a whole lot more about the Great Danes than we do to share some things in advance of Saturday’s matchup. The Daily Gazette’s Adam Shinder is an Orange alum, but writes about UAlbany, so he seemed like the perfect person to shed some light on this game.

After a tough but understandable loss at NDSU to start the season, Albany dropped a home game to URI last week. Let down game? Or are the Rams a better team this year?

URI is a pretty good team, hovering on the “also receiving votes” line in the FCS Top 25 polls, but Saturday night was a letdown for a couple of reasons.

First, UAlbany came out with a ton of energy in their first game in front of home fans since the 2019 FCS playoffs (the crowd of 8,144 was the sixth-biggest home crowd in program history) and put together an absolute textbook first drive for an early 7-0 lead. After that, the Rhode Island defense adjusted and UAlbany’s offense didn’t, going three-and-out on six (!!!!) consecutive possessions after the opening score.

Second, despite those struggles, the Great Danes made some inexcusable mistakes to blow chances to win the game. Twice, they were in position to kick field goals, and both times the kick never got off as the holder dropped the snap. They also had a horrendous blitz pickup on a fourth down play near midfield that led to QB Jeff Undercuffler being sacked to essentially end the game. That came two plays after a video review overturned a targeting call on URI that would’ve moved UAlbany into field goal range with less than a minute to play.

Karl Mofor’s a very good running back, but is off to a slower start this fall. What’s holding him back? Good opposing defenses, or is something up with the line?

It’s a mix of both. NDSU and URI are both very good up front, but the UAlbany line has definitely struggled to get any forward momentum going. The left side of the line is brand-new this season, with tackle Ozzie Hutchinson and guard Scott Houseman both first-time starters. Run blocking and pass protection have both been inconsistent over the first two games, but the run game got a little bit better in the second half against URI.

Mofor is a consistent, durable workhorse who is the only UAlbany running back to get a carry thus far this season. He’s a volume runner who at 5-foot-8 and 224 pounds can repeatedly throw himself into an opposing defense and eventually wear them down, but he’s not a gamebreaker. If Mofor gets going downhill early on, it’s usually a long game for the opposing defense. He showed a bit of that in the second half against URI, but the early run game has been nonexistent.

You’re personally familiar with Syracuse, despite covering the Great Danes. What do you see as the biggest issue(s) for the SU football program right now?

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.

That, to me, is what’s plagued Syracuse football in the post-2018 era. There seems to be a stubborn refusal, primarily on the offensive end, not to make necessary changes, whether that’s in personnel or play-calling.

Something UAlbany coach Greg Gattuso said during the CAA teleconference earlier this week stuck with me. Gattuso said that Babers impressed him because he’s the kind of coach who brings his assistants along with him at every new spot he goes. There’s certainly a lot to be said for loyalty, but maybe there’s also a refusal to accept new ideas.

Also, throw the ball to a tight end once in a while, will you? (Ed. note: ONE OF US!)

Albany’s defense has looked relatively effective through two games this fall, despite the losses. Where does this group excel most?

They’re fast and they get after the quarterback. Head coach Greg Gattuso’s scheme is relatively simple, but it’s very aggressive and is predicated on getting after the quarterback. That aggression can lead to a single missed tackle or blown assignment leaving the Great Danes vulnerable to a big play, but it also means they excel at forcing negative plays.

The front seven is very, very good, and all seven of them are either returning starters or — in the case of middle linebacker Jackson Ambush — played a ton of reps in the spring. The secondary has three good, young players — corners Isaac Duffy (an NC State transfer) and Christian Lewis, and safety Larry Walker Jr. — along with a veteran leader in Tyler Carswell.

On a similar note, is there anything you feel this team just does exceptionally well? Anything that needs a lot of work?

The front seven is the team’s strength, especially the pass rush. Jared Verse is the team’s best edge rusher, and UAlbany will move him around the formation. Anthony Lang is the other starting end, really playing as more of a stand-up rusher, and the Great Danes debuted freshman Ronnell McCorn as a speedy pass rusher in sub packages last week. AJ Mistler, who essentially plays as a LB/DB hybrid in UAlbany’s base defense, is another threat to come off the edge.

On the flip side, there’s a lot that still needs work. Outside of a couple flashes, the offense has been prone to a lot of quick three-and-outs, leaving the defense on the field for a really long time. When the running game isn’t there for the offense, teams are able to dial up pressure that the offensive line hasn’t really been able to cope with yet. There’s also some serious special teams issues to fix. Punter Sean Ralls really struggled in the spring, and while he’s been a lot better through two games this fall, there have been major coverage issues on both kickoffs and punts that essentially led to 13 of URI’s 16 points last weekend, there’s the aforementioned problems with controlling the snap with the field goal unit and the return game hasn’t really been a threat.

Who’s an unsung player or two on Albany that Syracuse fans should get a little more familiar with?

Jared Verse was the CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year during the spring, so he’s not necessarily unsung, but he’s definitely a guy two know because there’s a really good chance he’s on a lot of NFL Draft radars in a couple years. He’s 6-foot-4 and a super athlete at the position, and while he was underrecruited because he was sub-220 pounds coming out of high school, he’s now listed at 255 and has, at points, looked completely unblockable. Defensive tackle Mazon Walker is also a fun guy to watch, because a guy who’s only 5-foot-9 should not be able to make some of the plays on the interior that he makes.

Offensively, freshman slot receiver Roy Alexander has quickly emerged as a big-play threat joining outside receivers Tyler Oedekoven and Mike Gray. Tight ends Thomas Greaney and LJ Wesneski both got involved in the passing game a little more against URI, and they’re both options in red zone situations.

I’d also keep an eye on UAlbany’s backup QB Joey Carino. The former Syracuse lacrosse commit ended up choosing football and the Great Danes, and he’s getting a handful of snaps in each game, usually in short-yardage scenarios where his running ability makes him a threat. Probably won’t see him very much on Saturday, but he’s an interesting wrinkle in the Great Danes’ offense to watch out for.

Any Orange player in particular really concern you in this matchup?

Sean Tucker and Taj Harris are undoubtedly the biggest concerns for the UAlbany defense, but for me the biggest concern will be UAlbany’s receivers trying to find room to work against Garrett Williams and Duce Chestnut. UAlbany runs a lot of timing-based stuff in the passing game, and if QB Jeff Undercuffler is put off-schedule because his receivers can’t get open, he can be put in positions where he’s forced to improvise. Undercuffler isn’t particularly mobile, so that’s led to a few “hero ball” moments where he either forces an ill-advised throw or succumbs to pressure.

While FCS-over-FBS upsets are rare, they have occurred with increased frequency this year and the Orange wouldn’t be the least likely candidate to get knocked off. What’s the recipe for a Great Danes upset, if there is one?

It starts with UAlbany rediscovering its offensive mojo, which means 4+ yards per carry from Mofor opening up play-action in the passing game. Defensively, it comes down to controlling the Syracuse running game and forcing the Orange into a situation where they need to win in the passing game. Then, it’ll be up to the UAlbany pass rush to force either Tommy DeVito or Garrett Shrader into sacks and mistakes.

It’s probably got to be a low-scoring game where the Great Danes control time of possession and get a big swing in the turnover and field position battles.

Prediction time: Who wins this one and why?

After Syracuse’s loss to Rutgers, had UAlbany come out Saturday night and turned in an impressive showing against URI, I was prepared to be Mr. Hot Take and predict a Great Danes upset that would send the Orange fanbase into further disarray.

I can’t see that happening now.

I do think UAlbany sticks around for a little while, but Syracuse’s depth probably wins out, with the Orange probably getting a defensive or special teams TD somewhere along the way to open things up and win 31-13.

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Thanks again to Adam for taking the time out to answer these. Follow him on Twitter and check out the site too, for all things Albany-related.