Story and photo courtesy of Albany Athletics
FAIRFIELD, Conn. - Playing in front of Sacred Heart's Family Weekend crowd of 3,505, marking the Pioneers' second-largest attendance in history, the University at Albany football team recovered from a slow start to take a 23-20 victory over the hosting Pioneers. The Great Danes improved to 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the Northeast Conference, while SHU fell to 2-6 on the season and 1-4 in the NEC.
The duo of senior wide receiver Ryan Kirchner and sophomore quarterback Will Fiacchi led the UAlbany offense, connecting for two touchdowns in the victory. Kirchner made six catches for 86 yards, while Fiacchi completed 14-of-32 passes for 195 yards.
Senior tailback Drew Smith led the Great Danes' ground game with 103 rushing yards on 27 carries.
Defensively, senior Dave Plungas had an incredible game with 16 tackles, marking a team season-high for the Great Danes, and personal career-high, while classmate Jon Morgan had two game-changing interceptions and five tackles. In addition, Leon Saddler brought down nine.
Fumbling the ball twice in their first two drives of the afternoon, the Great Danes had a rough start in the road game. First, on UAlbany's opening drive, the Pioneers sacked Fiacchi just short of midfield, freeing and recovering the fumble. While the Great Danes defense made the stops and forced a punt, Sacred Heart pinned UAlbany at the two-yard line. Running the ball away from the goal line, SHU punched the ball loose again, out of Smith's grips this time, allowing the Pioneers to take over on UAlbany's 15-yard line.
Sacred Heart took a 7-0 lead as quarterback Luke Wischnowski connected with receiver Rock Tate in back left corner of the end zone on the second play of the drive, with 6:22 to go in the first.
However, the Great Danes turned it around to start the second quarter when Wischnowski tried to throw deep, but cornerback Leon Saddler tipped the ball up and safety Tramaine Wilson intercepted the pigskin. Wilson ran it 23 yards to SHU's 39-yard line before being pushed out of bounds. Two five-yard rushing plays set up Fiacchi's 29-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Ryan Kirchner, tying the ballgame, 7-7, after Sean Kenny's kick.
The Pioneers took a 13-7 lead with 1:13 remaining in the half, converting on a 4th-and-9 with a 23-yard pass to Robert Dim. After a false start penalty pushed the kick back, SHU missed the point-after attempt.
In the waning seconds of the first half, the Great Danes marched down the field, trying close the gap before the break. With 13 seconds remaining, Kevin Chillis snagged a pass in the red zone and dove across the goal line, but a holding call wiped the touchdown from scoreboard. Kenny's field goal attempt from 43-yards sailed through the uprights, sending the UAlbany into the halftime break down trailing by three, 13-10.
While the Pioneers appeared to still have momentum out of the locker rooms, junior Andrew Smith's pressure on Wischnowski and senior linebacker Jon Morgan's interception on UAlbany's two-yard line played spoilers. Morgan grabbed the pass and ran it 10 yards to the 12 before being brought down. The Great Danes then went on to use nine-play, 88-yard drive down the gridiron, to take the lead for the first time in the contest on another Fiachhi-Kirchner connection. Kirchner hauled in a 19-yard pass in the back corner of the end zone from the first-year quarterback, making the score 17-13 with 5:37 to go in the third.
With 2:35 remaining in the game, the Pioneers retook the lead, as Wischnowski threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Tate, who caught the ball over the middle and ran to the right pylon. The pass capped a nine-play 55-yard drive, lasting 3:56 minutes.
With time dwindling, the Great Danes ran three plays before Omar Osbourne broke away with a 40-yard rush down the middle of the field and into the end zone to take control of the lead, 23-20, with 1:13 remaining after a missed point-after. That would be the winning touchdown.
The Pioneers tried to make the most of their final possession, but Morgan picked off his second pass of the game on SHU's 47, to give the Great Danes the ball with 57 seconds to go.
While it seemed the game could be over, Sacred Heart's defense stepped up to the challenge and forced UAlbany to punt with 43 seconds from the 49. Paul Layton's punt came to a stop on SHU's six-yard line. The Pioneers had 30 seconds to work with, but the Great Danes defense held tight to hold onto the victory.
The Great Danes are back in action next Saturday when they play host to Wagner. Kickoff at University Field will be at 1:00 p.m.