By Jason Bowen
There are not a lot of college football teams that have won as many games as Salisbury during this century. The Sea Gull program has had just one losing season since 2001 and even that season (5-6 in 2009) they went to an ECAC bowl game.
Frostburg State and Wesley have garnered most of the attention in the New Jersey Athletic Conference and national rankings this season. But after an opening loss in overtime to Albright, the Sea Gulls have won seven in a row and put themselves in position yet again to win a conference championship. (They won the Empire 8 in 2011 and 2012 and a share of the NJAC in 2015.)
“We knew we were a better football team,” Coach Sherman Wood said. “We just stayed the course and focused on our philosophy.”
That philosophy is team-based: a triple option offense that spreads the carries around to multiple runners, a defense that rotates multiple players and special teams where starters play.
It might not always be flashy, it might not produce gaudy individual statistics, but it has won games.
“That’s always been our philosophy,” Wood said. “We want 33 kids to be able to play on offense, defense and special teams.
“We want to have people go in and out particularly on the defensive line. We want to make sure we keep our kids fresh. We do a great job with our strength and conditioning people, coordinating things with them on the field. We want to be the most conditioned football team in the country. That’s our goal.”
Since that opening loss, Wood says the defense and special teams have been key to the win streak. The Gulls are currently ranked eighth in D-III in both scoring (10.3 points per game) and total defense (231 yards per game), while ranking among the top three in the NJAC in all the measurable special teams categories.
“The area that we focus on more than offense and defense is special teams,” Wood said. “We take those things very seriously.”
Perhaps one of the best indicators of a physical defense is run defense and red zone defense. Salisbury is currently 22nd in the nation allowing just 83 yards a game and fourth best in D-III at bowing up inside the 20-yard line. Senior nose Brandon Robeson takes up a lot of space at 6--3, 305 pounds.
The secondary has also been stellar, ranking tops in the NJAC in pass efficiency defense.
Wood feels that senior Dakarai Ellis, a transfer from D-II Ohio Dominican, has helped bond the secondary. He leads the team in tackles (49) and tackle for loss (7.5)
“He’s very competitive kid,” Wood said. “He covers a lot of ground. He’s been a saint for us. He has motivated the other kids in the secondary to play well.”
Sophomore corner Keith Payne has matured into a shutdown-type corner with four interceptions, while safety Shane Gaines gets everyone in the right places.
Offensively, the overall production numbers have been down as compared to past historical Sea Gull units.
But the same can be said for most NJAC offenses this season. The conference ranks last in average offensive yards per game of any conference in D-III. That could be a testament to the number of highly ranked defenses in the conference. Five teams rank in the top 30 and seven within the top 90 in total defense.
Wood admits this not the most talented offensive unit that the Gulls have had over his tenure of success, but the unit still among the top in rushing offenses (eighth in D-III) with 287 yards a game. Still unit has impressed with its ability to hold on to the football, a problem that often slows option offenses. Salisbury has just nine turnovers so far this season.
And while they might not have a playmaker like they had in receiver Isaiah Taylor a couple of years ago, it goes back to the team-oriented philosophy.
“The last man on offense is just as important as the first guy,” Wood said. “We make sure that everyone gets the same number of reps.
“We preach that this is a very unselfish offense. If we’re going to win everyone has to play their role and conquer their role. The biggest difference is minimizing mistakes, if we can cut down on turnovers and minimize mistakes and execute, we’ll move the football. Everyone has bought into the system. Ours seniors Brady Curly, Ryan Kolb, Brandon Lewis have done a great job of working with all the other members of the offense watching video, understanding their responsibilities.”
And while many of their seasons have been derailed by this week’s opponent Wesley, Salisbury given as good as it has got in the past two trips to Dover. In 2013, it took a last minute Hail Mary by Joe Callahan to knock them off. In 2015, an Alex Potocko late field goal gave them a 38-35 win and helped seal an automatic bid to the playoffs.
“What impresses me about Wesley is not only are they talented, but they have great coaches who put those kids in great positions,” Wood said of the Wolverines. “Their kids play inspired. They play reckless, They just do everything they can to win football games.
“Our work is cut out for us, but what more can you ask for? Two undefeated football teams vying for the conference championship and they’re just an hour down the road. That’s the way it should be, a nice rivalry.”
Games this Week
No. 7 Delaware Valley (8-0, 7-0 MAC) at Misericordia (1-7, 1-6): The Aggies have continued to roll toward next week’s Keystone Cup matchup with Widener, the likely MAC championship game. They rank fifth in scoring defense (8.8) and sixth in total defense (226). The Cougars will have to wait for the better opportunity to win a second game until next week at FDU-Florham.
Alfred (6-2, 4-1 E8) at No. 10 Brockport (8-0, 6-0): The Saxons will try to steal a share of the E8 title and playoff bid this week on the road against the Eagles. After dropping a couple a games, Alfred recommitted to being physical of offense by rushing for 324 yards and throwing the ball just 11 times in a 35-7 victory over Morrisville State. Maleke Fuentes and Nasir Smith both topped the 100-yard mark, while the defense picked off four passes. After holding the ball for over 35 minutes, they will need a similar formula to beat Brockport this Saturday. The Golden Eagles avenge a 30-28 loss to the defending E8 champs. Brockport held an 11-point lead late into the third quarter last season. The Eagles have shut out back-to-back opponents and just seven points in the last three weeks. Dual-threat quarterback Joe Germinerio ranks first in the E8 in total offense (323).
No. 25 Salisbury (7-1, 7-0 NJAC) at No. 13 Wesley (7-1, 7-0): A pair of top ten defenses square off and both offenses have plenty of weapons to make this another exciting chapter in the “Route 13 Rivalry.” Wolverines tailback EJ Lee has rushed for over 100 yards in each game this season. Wesley can clinch the NJAC automatic bid with a win. The Sea Gulls would still have defeat Frostburg State next week in the Regent’s Cup game to clinch.
Kean (4-4, 4-3 NJAC) at No. 14 Frostburg State (7-1, 6-1): The Bobcats playoff hopes are very much alive, if they can win out. While they will need a Wesley loss and to Salisbury, could this be a trap game? The Cougars have looked good winning two straight by a combined score of 53-10 since losing to Wesley.
Union (7-1, 3-0 LL) at Ithaca (5-3, 3-1): It’s been a great turnaround for the Dutchmen, but a loss here will eliminate then from a Pool A selection even if they can beat RPI next week. The Bombers need a win this week and Union to beat RPI next week to pull out the bid.
Albright (6-2, 5-2 MAC) at FDU-Florham (2-6, 1-6): The Lions need a win to stay ahead of the pack for a MAC/Centennial Bowl bid this Friday night.
Stevenson (4-4, 4-3 MAC) at Wilkes (0-8, 0-7): Last season, the Colonels upset the Mustangs and probably cost them a home game in the opening round of the playoffs.
Lycoming (4-4, 4-3 MAC) at Lebanon Valley (4-4, 4-3): The Warriors have won four of five games and can reach the .500 mark for the first time since 2014. The Dutchmen also have had won two in a row before running into the Delaware Valley buzz saw last week.
King's (4-4, 3-4 MAC) at Widener (6-2, 6-1 MAC): The Pride are coming of an impressive road win over Stevenson last week. Widener built a 17-0 lead against the defending MAC champions, but had to rely on a goal line in the final seconds to take home a 20-14 win. The Monarchs had a little last second drama themselves with quarterback Zach Whitehead touchdown run with 20 seconds left to top FDU-Florham 18-15. A must win for the Pride if the hope to play for a Pool A bid next week.
Buffalo State (4-4, 1-4 E8) at Hartwick (3-5, 2-3): A matchup of two offenses that were shut out by Brockport in their last outings.
Utica (3-5, 2-3 E8) at Cortland (5-3, 4-2): The Red Dragons still had hopes of a share of the E8 title until they tripped up last week at St. John Fisher. They can still earn an Empire State Bowl bid if they finish strong. The Pioneers will try to finish above .500 in an odd numbered year for the first time since 2011.
St. John Fisher (2-6, 2-3 E8) at Morrisville State (2-6, 0-5): The Cardinals have chance to finish above .500 in the conference if they can win their last two despite losing their first five games of the season. The posted 557 yards last week has running back James Chambers went off for 199 rushing and 91 receiving yards. The Mustangs have lost five straight.
TCNJ (2-6, 2-5 NJAC) at Christopher Newport (5-3, 4-3): The Captains looked like a team that could contend for the NJAC title earlier in the season but have lost 2-of-3 (and weren’t impressive in their victory over winless William Paterson). Did they bottom out last week in a 27-7 loss to Kean? The Lions have won 2-of-3 after starting the season 0-5.
Montclair State (3-5, 3-4 NJAC) at Rowan (3-5, 2-5): The Profs are in danger of their first losing season since 2007. After a 3-0 start, they’ve lost five in a row. The Red Hawks bounced back from drubbing at Frostburg to give Wesley a scare for three quarters last week. With these two defenses take the under if you are betting.
Southern Virginia (1-7, 0-7 NJAC) at William Paterson (0-8, 0-7): The winner of this one stays out of the NJAC cellar.
St. Lawrence (2-6, 1-3 LL) at Hobart (5-3, 1-2): The last three years this matchup has had serious playoff and conference title implications. Feels odd that it doesn’t this season.
Rochester (2-5, 0-3) at RPI (6-2, 2-1 LL) The Engineers keep winning with a veteran defense and could clinch the LL title with wins the next two weeks. The Yellow Jackets are coming off a bye week and haven’t sniffed a win since September.