ALBANY, N.Y. - As Ryan McCarthy, Aaron Winchester and DJ Exilhomme sat up at the podium inside the media room at the University of Albany, they took a minute to collect their thoughts.
The final game of the season, a 42-14 loss to Albany in the first round of the FCS playoff on Saturday, had hardly gone the way the CCSU football team had expected or hoped. The Blue Devils had come into the game with an eight-game winning streak and plenty of momentum. But the Great Danes had other ideas. Albany orchestrated a 28-point third quarter to assure that CCSU would go another year without the program’s first postseason win.
Yet, as the trio sat up on the stage answering questions on what happened in the game, they took time to reflect on a season filled with so many firsts and so many highlights for the program, one that could not only be looked at with plenty of positives, but one that could certainly be a strong building block heading into 2020.
“We’re really proud of the team we had this year,” said Exilhomme, one of the team’s starting safeties. “We just gotta go back to Day 1, go back to working out, making sure our team stays together and do what our coaches are telling us to do and come back and do it again. We just have to keep playing how we’ve been playing.”
How CCSU ended up playing this season is perhaps what was most impressive.
Coming into the year, there were a number of question marks surrounding the Blue Devils. They had lost their record-setting and multi-year quarterback Jacob Dolegala to the NFL and replaced him with a fifth-year graduate transfer from Georgia State in Winchester. Their head coach, Pete Rossomando, who helped lead the program to its first-ever FCS playoff appearance and first Northeast Conference title in 2017, left for Rutgers. McCarthy took over, but was given the interim tag at the time.
There were also some major veteran losses on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Kenneth Keen, safety Tymir Hinton and defensive tackle Chris Tinkham highlighted some of the losses on defense. Running back Drew Jean-Guillaume chose to step away from the game due to injuries before the season began. He led the team in all-purpose yards with 1,211 (756 rushing, 360 receiving, 8 total touchdowns), while CCSU’s top two receiving threats in Courtney Rush (27 catches, 567 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Jose Garcia (34, 384, 1) graduated. The team’s leading rusher, Aaron Dawson from a year ago, ended up missing most of the season with a foot injury.
But all this group of Blue Devils did was win and set records along the way.
CCSU finished the season 11-2, breaking the previous record of nine victories set by the 1973 and 2009 teams. The Blue Devils also went 7-0 in NEC play, marking it the second time in three seasons they had accomplished that feat (they went 6-0 in 2017), and became the first team to win seven league games since both Wagner and Albany finished 7-1 in 2012. There were last-minute and overtime thrillers and they just missed out on what would have been the program’s biggest win when they took FBS-opponent Eastern Michigan down to the waning seconds before falling 34-29.
CCSU found itself getting national recognition too.
The Blue Devils became ranked for the first time since 2006 after beating Columbia in Week 5 to come in at No. 25 in the STATS FCS Top 25. CCSU remained there for seven weeks, rising as high as 17, the team’s highest-ever ranking in the poll. The Blue Devils were also ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll, rising to No. 18 and were there for six weeks.
CCSU’s defense was also ranked as the No. 2 unit in the country entering the playoff game and finished sixth with 283.3 yards per game. The Blue Devils still lead the nation in interceptions with 21, are tied for first in defensive touchdowns with six and rank third in run defense (73.5 ypg).
“I think a wise man who once coached [at Albany, Bob Ford] once said to me, ‘it’s hard to beat anybody,’” McCarthy said. “You don’t just throw magic dust on a team and say, ‘have chemistry.’ It just doesn’t work like that and when Aaron came into the mix, we were replacing a kid who was starting for three years, playing for four years and is in the NFL. We knew we had some pieces to the puzzle returning, but we lost 80 percent of the productivity we had on offense. We knew we had a good offensive line coming back, but we needed to have some guys step up.
“A lot of things had to fall into place. We caught some breaks, but we made a lot of breaks too. Every week, our kids, regardless of who we were playing, the next guy played and the next guy was up and we found a way to win.”
And all that winning led to a number of individual honors as well.
Winchester was named the NEC Offensive Player of the Year, while McCarthy was selected as the conference’s co-Coach of the Year, alongside Robert Morris head coach Bernard Clark. Winchester was also named a Walter Payton Award Finalist, which is given to the top offensive player in the FCS.
The CCSU signal caller wowed fans with a number of extraordinary plays this season and finished the year with a 64.7 completion percentage, 2,549 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and five interceptions. That was on top of running for a team-high 843 yards and nine scores.
Twelve other players received conference recognition, including wide receiver Tyshaun James, offensive linemen Connor Mignone and Jake Schena, linebacker Tre Jones and defensive back Tajik Bagley, who were all named to the All-NEC First Team. James finished with a team-best 1,145 all-purpose yards (978 receiving and 167 rushing) and 14 total touchdowns, emerging as one of the top playmakers in the conference, if not the country, forcing teams to game plan for him specifically.
Offensive lineman Cole Phelps, tight end Arthur Gilmore Jr., linebacker Foday Jalloh, defensive lineman Brandon Puritt and defensive backs Dexter Lawson Jr. and Exilhomme all earned all-conference second team recognition. Lawson Jr. finished with a team-high six interceptions, which led the NEC and was good for a tie for eighth in the country.
Other players emerged as well. Danley Exilhomme (631 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns) and Keonte Lucas (529 yards, 4 scores) emerged as running backs who offer big-play ability. Freshman Kyren Petteway (308 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns) came on late as an option opposite James.
It might not have been the ending the Blue Devils wanted, but when all was said and done, there was plenty to be proud of as they left the media room and headed to their locker room, preparing for the ride home and an offseason they plan on using to continue to grow.
“I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy,” Winchester said. “This season, for me personally, has been the best I’ve been a part of in my football career. To come here the way that I did and have a group of guys buy into what coach McCarthy was preaching and the coaching staff, and the buy in, being the leader of the offense isn’t easy. To go 11-1 in the regular season, win a conference championship and have that type of success and do things this program hasn’t seen, it goes to show what type of me we have coaching us, the type of men in the locker room.
“So I’m extremely excited for where this program is and where it can go.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or email@example.com