NEW BRITAIN - The Central Connecticut State football team has already accomplished one of its goals this season, now it’s setting its sights on another.
And it involves hoisting up another trophy, albeit a much larger one than the Northeast Conference trophy the Blue Devils won two weeks ago. But first, CCSU has to do something it has never done in its history: win a playoff game.
The 17th-ranked Blue Devils (11-1) are looking to accomplish that feat on Saturday when they take their eight-game winning streak on the road to face No. 25 Albany (8-4) in the first round of the FCS playoffs. Kickoff is 1 p.m.
“We’re grateful for the opportunity to play in the postseason,” said quarterback Aaron Winchester, the NEC offensive player of the year and Payton Award Finalist, who has thrown for 2,401 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, while rushing for another 782 yards and eight scores. “Not a lot of people are doing this right now, but same mentality for us. Another week that we’re trying to go 1-0.”
Unlike the last time CCSU reached the FCS playoffs in 2017, when starting quarterback Jacob Dolegala was suspended for the opening round against New Hampshire (the program’s first-ever playoff game), there aren’t any big distractions or storylines for the Blue Devils to worry about.
If there is one, it’s more intriguing than anything else.
CCSU head coach Ryan McCarthy has a number of great memories associated with the University of Albany. It’s where he spent most of his coaching career and started his family. Now, the Great Danes former offensive coordinator will have the opportunity to help end Albany’s season and extend the Blue Devils’.
“I met my wife there, had my first kid there, I spent 13 years of my life there, so it’s special, special place to me,” said McCarthy, who is in his first season as CCSU’s head coach and was the team’s offensive coordinator in the 14-0 loss to New Hampshire. “Obviously, I’m not going to let the other things get involved. They’re a good football team. I’ll just say this, I know the locker rooms and the terrain and I’ll feel comfortable once I get there.”
The Great Danes have played a much more difficult schedule this season playing in the Colonial Athletic Association compared to the Blue Devils. Albany has had played the 20th most difficult slate according to , CCSU is 36th. The Great Danes have also played against another team in the playoff field in Monmouth, which they lost in overtime, and have a 17-point win over then-No. 9 Towson.
And as well as the Blue Devils have played on the road this season, Albany has played just as well at home. In the confines of their own Stadium, the Great Danes are 5-1 compared to 3-3 on the road.
Statistically, the only real difference has been from Albany’s defense, which is giving up five fewer points this season at home (22.2) compared to when it travels (27.2), thanks in part to a 43-3 over Bryant in Week 2. CCSU also beat the Bulldogs, but by a score of 52-14. The Great Danes’ offense averages as many points (27.5 to 27.7) no matter where it plays, having scored at least 30 points in eight different games.
“We just have to do the simple things,” said James, who has 1,112 total yards of offense and 13 total touchdowns this season. “Catching the balls that have to be caught, hitting targets that have to be hit, making blocks that have to be made. It’s Week 13, so after a while you know what you have to do to win, it’s just being focused enough to do it.”
The Blue Devils will also have to find a way to continue to get other members of the offense involved with opponents continuing to focus in on James and Winchester. Danley Exilhomme has continued to emerge as the team’s top tailback as of late and shares the team-lead in rushing touchdowns with Winchester. Kyren Petteway has also developed into a deep-threat complementary receiver to James.
CCSU will need to continue to get those contributions against a defense that has taken the ball away 26 times this season.
“With teams focusing in on [Tyshaun and myself], you’ve seen other guys step up,” Winchester said. “You’ve seen guys like Kyren, Danley, [Enyce Walker] taking advantage of their opportunities when teams are focusing in on us. And we trust those guys to make plays just as much as we trust ourselves. As long as we win the football game, that’s all we care about.”
The key for the Blue Devils’ defense will be to stop the run, in particular Karl Mofor and his backup Alex James. The two have combined to rush for 1,781 yards and 10 touchdowns this season with Mofor accounting for 1,204 of that yardage and nine of those scores.
But the Great Danes have also shown they can throw the ball as well. Redshirt freshman Jeff Undercuffler has thrown for 2,966 yards and 33 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. Juwan Green (73 catches, 1,158 yards and 14 touchdowns) and Jerah Reeves (64, 752, 5) are his favorite two targets.
It will be an interesting matchup for a CCSU defense that is second in the nation in total yardage (273.3 yards per game), third in rushing defense (71.3 ypg), first in interceptions (20), first in defensive touchdowns (6) and 10th in scoring defense (18.3 ppg). The unit has also only allowed three rushing touchdowns all season.
“We just have to stay composed,” linebacker Tre Jones said. “We have to keep our foot on the pedal and keep at it. They have a very balanced offense. They have good receivers. They have the top back in the CAA, who is really dynamic, so we have to make sure we’re staying in our run fits and take the throwing windows away from the quarterback. As long as we play within our system and stick with our fundamentals, we’ll be alright.”
It’s certainly a tough task ahead, but the Blue Devils are embracing the moment. After all, they know they’ve played in some big games before.
“I haven’t noticed any difference with our players,” McCarthy said. “Even going through the conference, every week was do or die. Every week has been the same for them. They’re still happy to be playing football. They’re excited for the challenge.”