Defense picks on Albany in rout

By Jeffrey R. Larnard

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footALast year, Albany jumped out to an early 9-0 lead over the Massachusetts football team. This year, they didn’t have a chance as the No. 17 Minutemen defense set the tone from the second that Great Danes quarterback Vinny Esposito got the ball.

Senior Brandon Collier went untouched through the Albany (0-2) offensive line, and jarred the ball loose as he hit Esposito. Collier recovered the football at the Albany 18-yard line and the defense had set the tone, as UMass (1-1) went on to an easy 44-7 victory.

“When I hit him I kind of blacked out and I started to hear people yelling so I turned to see the ball so I just tried to get it,” Collier said. “I wish I would have seen it sooner so I could have scooped-and-scored.”

UMass capitalized off the turnover, on a 2-yard rushing touchdown by Tony Nelson, extending its lead to 10 in the first five minutes of the game. Armando Cuko hit a career long 47-yard field goal on the game’s opening drive and went 3-for-5 on the night with one blocked kick and another that hit off the crossbar.

“Last season, they came out on fire and we were kind of lackadaisical and out of shape,” Jeromy Miles said. “So for us we worked all week on just coming out with intensity from the first snap and we just came out and they never really responded.”

The Great Danes tried to respond, but found it difficult against a UMass defense that forced five turnovers – three interceptions and two fumbles – and constantly got pressure on Esposito. Albany found little success on the ground or through the air as they piled up 208 yards of total offense (84 yards rushing and 124 yard passing).

“That game [last year] was critical because that was the first game of the season and it set the tone for our season,” Miles said. “Now we come back from the K-State loss and we play [Albany] and hopefully this one will set the tone for this season.”

Through two games, UMass’ defense looks more like the defense that led it to the 2006 National Championship Game, than the defense that often came out slow last season, putting the team in deficits. Not only has it set the tone early in the game, but also been flawless in the second half this year. The Minutemen have only allowed points in the second quarters of the first two games of the year, being outscored 28-10 in that quarter, compared to outscoring their opponents, 51-0, in the other three quarters.

“I just want to start off by saying, UMass defense is back to the whole CAA,” Collier said.

Miles, Tyler Holmes and true freshman Perry McIntyre each pulled in an interception off Esposito (13-of-26 for 124 yards). Holmes’ interception gives him a pick in three straight games dating back to last season.

The only score of the game for Albany came on a 3-yard run by option quarterback Andrew Smith with nine minutes left in the second quarter.

On the same drive, the Great Danes lost tailback Dave McCarty who injured his hip. McCarty rushed for 125 yards last year in UMass’ 28-16 victory, and is Albany’s career rushing leader.

The touchdown cut UMass’ lead to three, but it would be back up to 10 less than a minute later. Kyle Havens found Victor Cruz running towards the middle of the field and the senior wideout caught the ball and took it 67 yards for the score.

“That was huge, that is the same play that I threw an interception on last week,” Havens said. “I came back this week, and threw a better ball executed better just like we said we wanted to do this week. That was just huge psychologically for the team.”

Havens and Cruz had a rhythm all night as the two hooked up six times for 121 yards and two touchdowns. Havens posted significantly better numbers than last week as he went 20-of-32 for 284 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Nelson carried most of the load for UMass (83 yards on 21 carries), but wasn’t the leading rusher for the Minutemen. Redshirt sophomore Jon Hernandez, who came in during the fourth quarter, had nine carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns. After putting UMass up 34-7 in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run, the first of his career, Hernandez broke a 58-yard touchdown run on UMass’ next offensive play.

“You want to get that first win on the board and the guys did a great job of turning the ball over, and the offense putting the game away with those turnovers in the second half to get us that first win,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said.

Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at [email protected]