It took a mere three plays for Michael Nicastro and Albany to realize this season has a chance to be drastically different than the last.
The junior linebacker's interception and 38-yard return on the opening drive set the tone for Albany's 22-16 win at Buffalo last Saturday, its first over an FBS opponent. It was a watershed moment for a program that's struggled for relevancy since jumping to the FCS ranks in 1999, and an especially satisfying one for Nicastro. The 2014 All-CAA selection, who finished with 11 tackles, was playing his first game since suffering a gruesome knee injury on the same field in the Great Danes' 51-14 loss to the Bulls a year prior.
"Anybody that's been hurt on a field the year before, there's got to be some apprehension," Albany coach Greg Gattuso said. "But he went out and, I should have known, made an impact on the game. He's just that kind of player. It shows why we missed him so much last year."
Nicastro's absence was one of several pitfalls that befell the Great Danes last season, when an underclassmen-laden group lost six of its final seven games and took a step back from a promising 2014 CAA debut.
There's reason to believe an upward move could be coming. Albany returns a conference-high 19 starters and has a schedule that doesn't include three of the league's expected heavyweights in James Madison, William & Mary and Towson.
With a visit to perennially rebuilding Rhode Island (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET) next up and manageable home games against Holy Cross and St. Francis to follow, the Great Danes appear to have a legitimate chance at a 4-0 start entering the defining portion of the slate - a home date with No. 2 Richmond preceded by trips to Maine and Villanova in October.
An opportunistic defense that forced 27 turnovers in 2015 adds to that optimism. The Great Danes had four more takeaways against Buffalo, including safety Mason Gray's goal-line strip of Bulls quarterback Tyree Jackson that prevented a potential go-ahead touchdown with 3:52 left.
Albany induced six turnovers in last September's 35-7 victory over Rhode Island, which has yet to reap the benefits from going young while winning just twice in coach Jim Fleming's first two seasons.
The Rams were inundated with early mistakes in their season-opening 55-6 loss at Kansas, with a muffed punt by All-CAA return man Harold Cooper and an opening-possession fumble putting URI in a 13-0 hole midway through the first quarter.
Quarterback Wesley McKoy also seeks improvement after completing just 6 of 23 passes for 49 yards with an interception.
"The cleanliness of our operation needs to come a long way," Fleming said. "We need to be able to compete in the short passing game. I thought there were some bright spots in the running game, we found some creases. We've just got to find some more explosion plays."
For Gattuso, the goal is maintaining the intensity, focus and execution the Great Danes displayed against Buffalo.
"If we don't play this way every week, we don't give ourselves a chance to win every week, we probably haven't learned a lot from (this win)," he said. "It'll look nice in a timeline and things like that. Getting a win over an FBS school is outstanding and we're very proud of that, but ultimately we need to continue to build on that start."
HOUSTON, THE DUKES HAVE LIFT-OFF
Any concerns of James Madison's prolific offense experiencing a decline in production under a new coaching regime were quickly dispelled on opening weekend. The 12th-ranked Dukes scored touchdowns on each of their first seven drives and generated points on the first 11 en route to their most lopsided win ever, an 80-7 thrashing of Morehead State in Mike Houston's debut. The scoring total was the highest ever by a CAA school against a Division I foe and surpassed the program's previous high of 76 points, set against Morgan State in 1995. The result also eclipsed a 72-0 rout of Lock Haven in 2000 as the Dukes' largest margin of victory.
Houston, who replaced current Texas State boss Everett Withers in January after guiding The Citadel to a share of the 2015 Southern Conference title, was as surprised as any by the outcome.
"First game, new coaching staff together, and you just never know truly what to expect," he said. "But I thought that our kids were extremely focused and came out ready to play and played with a tremendous energy level. The thing that stuck out the most was how hard we played and for the most part, how clean we played all night long. Probably about as good an opening night performance as we could expect."
Houston came to Harrisonburg with a reputation of developing relentless rushing attacks, and the Dukes certainly didn't disappoint in that regard. JMU produced a school-record 10 touchdowns on the ground and 498 rushing yards, its most as a Division I member.
The offense likely faces a sterner test in Saturday's visit from Central Connecticut State (4 p.m. ET), which limited Lafayette to 22 rushing yards in a 24-10 loss last week.
A capsule look at Saturday's other games involving CAA teams (all times Eastern):
Stony Brook (1-0) at Temple (0-1), 1 p.m.
- The Seawolves are just 1-6 all-time against FBS teams but enter Lincoln Financial Field with confidence from a hard-earned 13-9 win over then-No. 19 North Dakota, while the Owls could be lacking some after surrendering 344 rushing yards in a 28-13 home loss to Army and facing a second straight week without their top offensive player, running back Jahad Thomas, due to an injured hand. The game will be a homecoming of sorts for Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore, who served as Penn's offensive coordinator from 1992-99 and whose brother, Ray, is the Quakers' head coach.
Delaware (1-0) at Lafayette (1-0), 6 p.m.
- The Blue Hens recorded a 12th consecutive victory in the series after holding Lafayette to 55 rushing yards in a 19-9 win in Newark last season, though the Leopards have already matched their 2015 win total with last week's defeat of Central Connecticut State. Delaware cruised past Delaware State in its opener behind an outstanding return from Wes Hills. The junior running back, who missed nearly all of 2015 with a broken foot, accounted for 212 of the Blue Hens' 395 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns.
Elon (0-1) at Charlotte (0-1), 6 p.m.
- The Phoenix try to recover from last week's disappointing 31-6 home loss to Gardner-Webb in which they were outgained 327-59 on the ground. Elon won its lone meeting with Charlotte 20-13 in 2014, though the 49ers were in their second year of existence at the time and have since stepped up to the FBS level.
Lehigh (0-1) at #22 Villanova (0-1), 6 p.m.
- The Wildcats enter the final home opener of the 32-year Andy Talley era with room to improve on offense and special teams, though the defense impressed in last week's 28-7 loss at ACC member Pittsburgh. Villanova yielded 261 total yards and got its lone points on Rob Rolle's fumble recovery off freshman linebacker Drew Wiley's third-quarter sack. Three of the Panthers' four touchdowns came on drives starting in VU territory, with the other a 96-yard kickoff return to begin the second half. Lehigh managed only 239 yards in its 23-21 loss to visiting Monmouth and has lost four straight and seven of eight in the series.
Norfolk State (1-0) at #2 Richmond (1-0), 6 p.m.
- After stating their case as a potential national title contender with last week's 37-20 notice-serving victory at Virginia, the Spiders attempt to avoid a letdown in their home opener. Norfolk State, fresh off a 20-12 win over Division II Elizabeth City State, figures to have a hard time slowing down quarterback Kyle Lauletta and a UR offense that piled up 524 total yards against the Cavaliers. NSU, led by former Spiders' head coach Latrell Scott, is 1-10-1 all-time against current CAA teams.
Saint Francis (0-1) at Towson (0-1), 6 p.m.
- Morgan Mahalak makes his home debut and should fare better than his first game as a Tiger, when the Oregon transfer completed just 16 of 36 passes and was intercepted once in a 56-20 loss at South Florida that knocked Towson out of the STATS FCS Top 25. Saint Francis, picked third in the Northeast Conference preseason poll, surrendered 353 yards and three touchdowns through the air in last Saturday's 41-31 loss at No. 14 Montana and was held to 197 total yards in last year's 35-20 defeat to the Tigers. Towson has won all four meetings with the Red Flash.
#13 William & Mary (0-1) at Hampton (0-1), 6 p.m.
- The Tribe also should have an easier time after being overmatched against N.C. State in their opener. William & Mary has outscored Hampton 113-28 in winning three matchups between the Tidewater residents over the previous three seasons and outgained the Pirates by a 526-150 margin in last year's 40-7 rout. Kendell Anderson rushed for a career-high 195 yards for the Tribe, but the All-CAA running back had just eight on five carries while hindered by a shoulder injury in the 48-14 loss to the Wolfpack.
Holy Cross (1-0) at #24 New Hampshire (0-1), 7 p.m.
- UNH christens the brand-new Wildcat Stadium with a potentially challenging test. Holy Cross won four of its final five games of 2015 and rolled to a 51-24 victory over Morgan State last week behind three touchdown passes from Peter Pujals, a four-year starter who earned first-team All-Patriot League honors last season. The Wildcats, who lost to Patriot member Colgate in last year's FCS playoffs in the final game at Cowell Stadium, attempt to get their offense untracked after mustering 141 yards and going 0 for 14 on third downs in a 31-0 loss at Mountain West power San Diego State.
Maine (0-1) at Toledo (1-0), 7 p.m.
- After coming close to knocking off an FBS bowl participant from last season in their first game under Joe Harasymiak, the Black Bears take on another in a Toledo team that finished 10-2 a year ago and amassed 556 total yards in last Friday's 31-10 road win at Arkansas State. Maine won't have top wide receiver Micah Wright available for a second straight week due to a suspension, though Jaleel Reed filled in nicely during the narrow 24-21 loss at Connecticut by totaling 169 yards and a touchdown on eight catches.