Saturday, November 19, 2011

University of Albany FCS Football Earns Share of Northeast Conference Title; Secures First NCAA FCS Playoff Berth - UAlbany Sports 2011

Albany, N.Y. - Dan Di Lella threw four touchdown passes, including two in each half, in leading UAlbany to a 31-21 victory over Sacred Heart in the season's final regular-season game on Saturday, Nov. 19 at University Field. The Great Danes earned a share of the Northeast Conference championship and their first trip to the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs with the league's automatic berth.

"It's a tremendous group of seniors," said UAlbany coach Bob Ford, whose team shared the conference crown with Duquesne but advanced to the NCAAs by winning the head-to-head matchup in October. "The defensive line made some huge plays in the second half and they are a senior group. There is great satisfaction in coaching when you watch a team and individuals made a progression."

UAlbany (8-3, NEC 7-1) broke a 14-14 halftime tie by scoring on consecutive possessions in the third quarter. Defensive tackle Zach Gallo intercepted a short pass meant for running back Sean Bell at the Pioneers' 23-yard line. Di Lella later tossed a 14-yard scoring pass to Ryan Kirchner, who slid on one knee in the left end zone to make the catch. The Great Danes followed with a 10-play drive that resulted in Herb Glass' 31-yard field goal and a 24-14 advantage. Andrew Smith's 38-yard scamper moved his team deep into SHU territory. The junior tailback rushed for 135 yards on 23 carries.

Sacred Heart (5-6, NEC 3-5) responded with a seven-play, 77-yard march. A pass interference penalty moved the ball to Albany 31. Tim Little, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, then delivered a 31-yard strike to Sean Kessler, who gathered the pass on the right sideline between defenders and advanced to the end zone.

After defensive end Eddie Delaney camp up with a sack, UAlbany took possession at midfield and drove nine plays to paydirt for a 31-21 margin. Di Lella ran an option play for a first down at the SHU 24, before Smith broke free for 11 yards. Di Lella, who completed 19 of 29 passes for 165 yards, would find Kirchner on a 9-yard touchdown pass with 9:29 to play.

The late stages of the game did not come without some anxious moments. The teams combined for a missed goal and three turnovers on four straight possessions. The biggest play came when Little completed a 38-yard pass to Rickey Moore Jr., but UAlbany safety Jake Ciccarello stripped the ball and cornerback Randall Exantus made the recovery in his own red zone with 2:21 remaining.

"This is a phenomenal feeling," said Gallo, whose squad won the program's fifth NEC crown, but will make its first-ever NCAA FCS postseason appearance. "I am happy for Coach (Bob) Ford. He deserves to be in the playoffs and I am personally very proud to send him there."

The Pioneers, who were in the conference race until a couple of close losses the last two weeks, took a 14-7 lead in the second quarter when Little hooked up with tight end Rich Rossi on a 10-yard touchdown throw. Sacred Heart had opened the scoring on its first series of the game as holder Jo Jo Jamiel scored on a three-yard run off a field goal fake. Little finished 27-of-44 through the air for 265 yards.

The Great Danes, who have won eight of their last nine contests, answered with a touchdown in both situations. Di Lella connected with fullback Justin Petersen on third-and-goal from the three-yard line in the first quarter. The combination of Di Lella and Kirchner worked for the first of three times on the day on a 9-yard TD pass with 3:55 left before the intermission. Di Lella kept the drive alive with a fourth-down completion to Smith.

"This means more than words," offered Di Lella, who established the program's single-season record with 24 touchdown passes. "At the start of the year, I thought I would be on the bench, but things worked out for me. I am proud of what we did today."

Paw Prints: UAlbany earned one of 10 conference automatic berths in the NCAA Division I FCS field ... the tournament bracket will be announced on ESPNU at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20 ... the Great Danes have won or shared NEC championships in 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2011 ... UAlbany has reached the eight-win mark for the fourth time as a Division I FCS program ... the Great Danes own seven wins in conference play for just the second time ... Dan Di Lella's 24 touchdown passes eclipses the old mark of 22 set by Joe Savino in 1997 ... Eddie Delaney established the program's FCS single-season record with 8.5 sacks.... Andrew Smith became the ninth Great Dane to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (1,052).

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