Danes hope to make ’Nova ’Fraidy Cats

by mICHaeL KeLLy Gazette Sportswriter
 ALBANY — As it has grown into a CAA program, the University at Albany football team has put at least a scare into each of the conference’s top programs at some point during the past few years.
 Except one.
 That’s Villanova, which is ranked seventh in the media poll and eighth in the coaches poll. The Wildcats defeated UAlbany in the teams’ first three CAA meetings — by 11, 17 and 37 points.
 “We’ve not played our best games against them,” UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said. “No doubt.”
 This year, the type of challenge Villanova (2-1) poses UAlbany (2-1) in the conference opener for both teams is no different than in past years.
 “In the college football world, when you’re playing a team that’s in the top 10, they’re usually really good,” Gattuso said. “There’s a reason why they’re there.”
 “This is a big one for us,” UAlbany redshirt junior linebacker Julian Cox said.
 With a win, UAlbany starts off on the right track in the CAA this season, a conference in which the Great Danes were picked to finish sixth in the league’s preseason poll. Villa-nova was picked to finish third.
 “The big thing for us is we’re starting conference play,” UAlbany senior fullback/tight end Anthony Manzo-Lewis said. “The first three weeks, we’ve played some good opponents, but now it’s do or die for us.”
 Both UAlbany and Villanova fell to an FBS opponent this season, while each boasts a CAA top-five scoring defense. There’s optimism for the Great Danes that 2017 is the year they can break through against the Wildcats.
 “But we match up well this year,” Gattuso said.
 Tonight’s kickoff between the teams is scheduled for 7 at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium
 The Great Danes are likely without junior running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, who made his season debut last Saturday with a touchdown and 63 rushing yards. After missing UAlbany’s first two games following a setback in his recovery from a torn left ACL, Ibitokun-Hanks played in Week 3, but did not practice this week.
 As in UAlbany’s first two games, redshirt junior running back Kendall Rodgers Jr. and freshman Karl Mofor will split carries in Ibitokun-Hanks’ absence.
 Mofor had been off to a great start through two games with 39 carries for 197 yards and three touchdowns. The freshman registered only two carries for six yards last week.
 Gattuso said a week with only a couple carries was likely a long-term positive for Mofor.
 “These young guys, these freshmen — when they’re true freshmen — the heavy load is hard on them,” Gattuso said.
 UAlbany’s rush-heavy offense took to the air last weekend with success, as the Great Danes passed for more than twice as many yards as it rushed for against Monmouth.
 “Everybody was on the same page,” senior wide receiver Jerod Diggs said. “We all knew what we had to do.”
 Diggs was a major part of that, as his five receptions went for 112 yards. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Brunson played his best game since taking over that position late last season, completing 17 of 25 passes for 196 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
 Overall, UAlbany passed for 219 yards and rushed for 107 last week. On the season, UAlbany has passed for 522 yards and rushed for 419 — leaving its offensive production this season as coming 55.5 percent from the passing game.
 Last year? The Great Danes rushed for 57.7 percent of its yards on offense.
 “Now we have a pretty solid balance between the two and that’s going to help us,” Manzo-Lewis said.
UAlbany preparing for Villanova, a team that has beaten the Great Danes by double digits its first three CAA meetings.