|Wesley rolled up a good amount of offense on Saturday but Christian Wilson and the Sea Gulls' defense got stops when needed.
Salisbury photo by Paul Jacko
When looking at the anatomy of an upset, most of the time you see the key factors for the underdog were inspiration, faith and maybe even a little luck.
All three were a factor on Saturday, as Salisbury took control of the New Jersey Athletic Conference race with a 38-35 victory over fourth-ranked Wesley. The win put the Sea Gulls (6-2, 6-1 NJAC) in control of their own destiny to earn the conference crown. If they can knock off Frostburg State this Saturday, they’ll earn their first trip to the NCAA playoffs since 2012 when they were champions of the Empire 8.
After a 51-39 loss to Christopher Newport the previous week, coach Sherman Wood knew his team would need a little some inspiration.
“To be honest, with you, we were really disappointed last week against CNU,” said Wood, who has led the program to 121-59 record in his 17 seasons. “They talked about it all week, even though I told them it doesn’t matter, we still have (a chance when we) go to Dover. Everything clicked, we did a great job as a staff preparing our kids all week.”
The staff had guest speakers at the team meeting on Friday and watched video of former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and his best inspirational moments.
But as Lewis could probably tell you, the best inspiration comes from leaders on the field. Salisbury got that from quarterback Ryan Jones. After taking a couple hard hits on the previous drive, the junior looked like he might be on his last legs as the Sea Gull offense took over at its own 45-yard line with 6:40 left in the game and the game tied at 35-all.
But Jones carried the ball on the first three plays on the drive and continued to take the hits while gaining 18 yards. He got up slowly each time and was hunched over in the huddle as if gasping for air. But he gutted it out.
“We just knew that this was our season right here,” said Jones, a native of Parkton, Md. The junior had taken over the starting role for the last three games of the 2014 after John Dunbar was injured. With Dunbar still injured at the start of this season, he has rushed for491 yards and six touchdowns while passing for 926 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has been intercepted just three times.
Against Wesley, it was his decision making as much as any statistics that helped lead Salisbury to victory. He completed seven of 15 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, he added 50 rushing yards.
“It honestly comes down to what the defense is giving us,” the quarterback said. “Things we do with the option, it’s obviously going to open up some things in the pass game.”
The Sea Gulls picked up another first down before the drive stalled at the Wesley 19-yard line with 2:27 to go in the game. Wood had a decision to make. After a Wolverine timeout, he decided kick the field goal.
Did he think of going for it?
“Yeah, of course,” Wood said. “The kids were looking at me like --- we can end this game right now.”
But he decided to place trust his kicker, Alex Potocko. The sophomore calmly booted the ball through the uprights for a 36-yard field goal.
“I looked him in the eyes,” the coach said. “He gave me a certain look and that’s when I called field goal.”
For Potocko, it was a redemption of sorts. He had missed an 18-yard attempt with just seconds remaining in the Sea Gulls’ 24-23 loss to Albright back in their season opener. He hasn’t missed since.
“It was a low moment,” Potocko said. “But this team, this coaching staff, put a lot of faith in me anyway. I saw that and I said I can put some faith in myself too.
“I feel so grateful and blessed to have such a great team and coaching staff that put that kind of faith in me. It’s really just an honor.”
If Wood had elected to place faith in his kicker, the decision all forced him to place faith in his defense. Wesley had already rolled up nearly 600 yards of total offense. The Sea Gulls would have to stop arguably the best quarterback in Division III football in Joe Callahan.
The senior passed for 440 yards on the afternoon, while rushing for 87. He had already led Wesley on a 94-yard game-winning drive in less than two minutes in the Wolverines 50-49 victory at North Central in September.
Wood had only look toward the south end zone to be reminded of Callahan’s “Hail Mary” on fourth-and-21 that allowed the Wolverines to stun the Gulls 30-27 in the final minute of the 2013 contest.
“We’ve had some close calls,” said Wood whose team hadn’t beaten Wesley since 2004. Two years ago, we actually had a veteran secondary in the back but we lost contain on Joe. He had chance to throw the deep pass.”
Jones was a freshman in 2013 and didn’t travel to the game but watch the whole 2013 game during the week.
“I was praying that something like that didn’t happen again towards the end. I just had complete faith in our defense. We were able to pull it out.”
And Callahan nearly pulled it out again. After starting the drive at their own 11, he moved Wesley out to the 39-yard line. On second-and-10, he rolled right, stopped, and found Alex Kemp behind Salisbury secondary. He launched but the ball went through the freshman’s arms and fell incomplete at the Salisbury 10-yard line.
“It’s hard not to watch him,” said Jones. “Just the things he can do, I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous at the end. He’s such a great player with incredible weapons around him.”
Callahan next scrambled for 5 yards, to set up a fourth down at the 44. Wood and the Salisbury coaching staff had preached all week keeping containment and getting hands on the receivers. On fourth down, the Salisbury defense executed the strategy perfectly. Callahan was only able to get off a pass that looked more like a hook shot as the pocket collapsed around him. The pass fell through the hands of Wesley running back Jamar Baynard and a flock of Sea Gull defenders. Game over. Upset complete.
“The heart of this team, it’s unbelievable,” Jones said. “It’s a complete team effort. It just took every facet. It’s amazing.”
So after experiencing a roller-coaster of emotions the past two weeks, Jones knows his team can’t afford to celebrate this victory for too long. An improving Frostburg State would like nothing better than to spoil the Sea Gulls’ playoff hopes in the Regents Cup game this Saturday. The Bobcats haven’t won in the series since 2003.
“We have to be ready,” Jones said. “We can’t dwell on this too much. Obviously it was an amazing win. But next week is incredibly important, just as important as this game. We need to be focused all week and play our game.”
Wesley fell seven spots after the loss to No. 11, while Salisbury went from unranked to No. 21. Like the Sea Gulls, Albright returned to the poll at No. 24 after defeating Stevenson 30-26. Losses dropped Delaware Valley (1) and St. Lawrence (9) out of the poll, but both are still receiving votes. Cortland State is also receiving votes (16).
Games to Watch
Frostburg State (6-3, 5-3 NJAC) at Salisbury (6-2, 6-1 NJAC.) A win clinches the New Jersey Athletic Conference automatic bid for the Sea Gulls. Frostburg has lost two straight to see their title hopes fade. However, the Bobcats have been competitive in both.
Merchant Marine (3-5, 2-4 LL) at Saint Lawrence (7-2, 5-1 LL.) The pressure is on the Saints who dropped a heart-breaker to Hobart on a controversial touchdown pass with two seconds left in the game. They clinch with a victory, but open the door for RPI with a loss. RPI (7-2, 5-1) travels to winless Union.
Lebanon Valley (5-4, 5-3 MAC) at Albright (8-1, 7-1 MAC.) The Lions can clinch the MAC automatic bid against LVC. The Dutchmen have won four-of-five. A loss opens the door for Delaware Valley (7-2, 6-2 MAC,) who would still have to beat Widener (6-3, 6-2 MAC) after a tough 43-42 loss to Lycoming last Saturday.
Cortland State (7-2, 5-2 E8) at Ithaca (4-5, 2-5 E8.) It pretty simple for the Red Dragons, beat your archrival and you capture the Empire 8’s automatic bid. Lose and the winner of the Alfred (7-2, 5-2)-St. John Fisher (6-3, 5-2 E8) game is automatic qualifier.