By Christian Hince | October 3, 2023
The University at Albany football team shut down Villanova’s high flying offense in one of the most impressive wins of Head Coach Greg Gattuso’s 10-year tenure. UAlbany’s defensive unit racked up seven sacks and five turnovers in the team’s first home game since their Aug. 26 opener against Fordham.
Ori-Jean Charles (15) prepares to sack Connor Watkins (4) on the opening play of the game.
Photo Credit: Hans Pennink/Times Union
“We can win a lot of football games if we play like this,” said Gattuso. “Beating a really good Villanova team soundly is something I think we can gain some confidence from.”
UAlbany challenged the Wildcats in a new way, who came into Saturday averaging just over 38 points in their three Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) contests. Villanova’s final points of the day came at the 11:08 mark of the second quarter, when Wildcats quarterback Connor Watkins hit wide receiver Jaylan Sanchez from 16 yards out to tie the score at 10. From there on out, it was all Great Danes.
Senior defensive end AJ Simon racked up three sacks. Linebacker Ori-Jean Charles sacked Watkins twice, forcing a fumble on the second one in the early third quarter. Safety Larry Walker Jr. forced a fumble in the first quarter which linebacker Dylan Kelly recovered. Across from Simon, fellow edge rusher Anton Juncaj sacked Watkins twice, the second of which was a strip-sack recovered by Simon near the end of the third.
Juncaj, who leads the FCS in sacks with nine total, finds that Simon and him feed off each other from both edges.
“It’s just like a little competition,” he said. “When you see him get a sack it’s like, ‘Oh, I need one now,’ and then when he sees me get a sack he's like, ‘I need one now.’”
The Great Dane defense also picked off Watkins twice in garbage time. Cornerback Aamir Hall snatched one in the end zone to stop a 52-yard drive with six minutes left, while linebacker Michael Lucien snagged one around midfield to end Villanova’s final possession with 2:24 left.
“I think the thing I like about our defense the most is they play big in big moments,” said Gattuso. “They compete like crazy.”
On the other side of the ball, running back Griffin Woodell, who wasn’t on scholarship until days before the season began, made his first start of the season on Saturday. He exploded for 107 rushing yards on 16 carries, adding 38 receiving yards to his two all-purpose touchdowns.
His first score came with 0:19 left in the first half when he took a Poffenbarger checkdown 19 yards to the end zone to put UAlbany up 17-10. The second came less than three minutes into the fourth quarter, when he walked the ball in from three yards out to increase this lead to 24-10. Woodell credited this production to the offensive cast around him.
“Our o-line’s blocking beautifully,” he said. “Our receivers block, and that's what gives me the opportunity to be able to score.”
A Glens Falls native, he was proud to put up this performance in front of a home crowd of more than 7,000 that included plenty of family members.
“That's so much support right there from everybody,” Woodell said. “It's just good to be able to put a show on for people.”
His performance was the first 100-yard game from a running back this season, and good enough for America East Rookie of the Week. With Woodell playing the majority of offensive snaps Saturday, Gattuso plans on continuing to give the freshman strong volume.
“I'm not going to anoint him king of England right now, but I would obviously see him starting next week and continuing to lead our rushing game right now,” Gattuso said.
Quarterback Reese Poffenbarger put together a strong performance, throwing for 244 yards and three touchdowns on 20-31 passing, his best completion rate of the season so far, hitting eight different targets. These numbers came on a day where the Great Danes went to depth at wide receiver, with Roy Alexander out a third straight game due to a lower-body injury and Jackson Parker out for the season with a reported ACL injury.
With the win, UAlbany starts America East play 1-0 and sits to 3-2 overall, while Villanova falls out of the top 25 and sits at 1-1 in league and 3-2 on the year. The Great Danes continue league play on Saturday when they visit the Towson Tigers.
“I just think we're trending in the right direction,” said Anton Juncaj. “We just got to keep getting better and sky's the limit for this team I feel.”