Salopek leads Gators through rough patch

More news about: Allegheny
T.J. Salopek
T.J. Salopek has continued his efficient career, with 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Allegheny photo by Ed Mailliard

The Allegheny Gators were many coaches’ pick to challenge for the North Coast Athletic Conference championship among the traditional powers, Wittenberg and Wabash. With almost all of their offensive starters back for the 2010 season, the Gators looked poised to compete for a postseason berth.

However, with back-to-back one-score losses to Wittenberg and Case Western Reserve, the Gators find themselves at 3-2 at the midway point of the season.

“It’s been a tough start to our season,” said Allegheny senior quarterback T.J. Salopek. “We had great expectations and we definitely still do to finish out the season. We played Wittenberg tough and then, we played tough at Case Western.

“If we get a break here or there, or play a little more sound football, we come away with the victory and we’re looking pretty good halfway through the season,” he added. “We made one too many mistakes in those games. We’re keeping our heads up. We know we’re a good football team and we’re going to finish out the season strong, one game at a time.”

Following a 28-0 win at Bethany and a 34-27 victory against Carnegie Mellon at home, the Gators lost 24-21 at home to Wittenberg and 24-23 at Case.

Allegheny held a 14-10 lead over Wittenberg nearly two minutes into the fourth quarter, but 14 unanswered points from the Tigers sealed the game. In their loss to Case a week later, the Gators outscored the Spartans 11-3 in the fourth quarter, thanks in large part to Sid Facaros’ 76-yard fumble return for a touchdown, which helped force overtime.

However, Allegheny’s potential game-tying extra point try was blocked in the extra session.

“It is really frustrating because we believe we can play with anybody, anybody in the conference, anybody in the country,” Salopek said. “I think we proved that against Wittenberg and to come so close to pulling away with the victory and end up losing it late in the game, it was tough. It was the same thing the next week at Case. They were tough again this year, just like they have been in the past couple years.

“Those were two really tough losses for our program, but also, at the same time, I certainly think we took a lot from those games, a lot of momentum,” he continued. “Even though they were losses, I think we took momentum from them to carry us into the rest of our season.”

Salopek has seen tough losses and big wins before. He has been the starter for four years and through five games this season, he has completed 99 of 154 passes for 1,169 yards and ten touchdowns against four interceptions. He has added one rushing touchdown this season and is focused on providing the Gators with continued leadership.

“I think that’s definitely the part I can say my game has improved through my experience, spending time in the film room, learning all the timing, getting used to what they’re doing on defense,” Salopek said. “I feel like I’m in control of my game and what we’re doing as an offense. I just go out there on Saturdays and execute the game plan to the best of my ability.

“I’m trying to get our guys fired up,” he continued. “We play in a tough conference, so every week, we see the best in each team. They bring their best when they come here to Allegheny; they bring their best when we go out on the road, so getting my guys fired up, getting them believing in our defense during the week of practice, getting them to believe we can play with anybody and can beat anybody. That’s what has turned around this season. A couple plays here and there, we could be undefeated. I have to keep those guys going.”

Despite the team’s struggles, Salopek became the Gators’ first-ever quarterback to complete 600 passes in his career.

He enters Saturday’s game at Denison with 42 career touchdown passes and 6,775 passing yards. Salopek has improved his numbers in each of his previous three seasons as a starter and looks forward to doing the same thing during his senior year.

“All the credit goes to the offensive line that I’ve played behind the past four years and also the receiving corps. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with a lot of good guys,” he said. “I wouldn’t have a single record if it wasn’t for the whole team, offense, defense and special teams. Everybody has a part in it.

“We have a much more mature offensive unit this year. We’re spending more time in the film room,” Salopek concluded. “Coaches are trying a different approach. There’s a little bit more focus, concentration. I think that’s changed our attitudes. We truly believe that we can play with anybody and I think that reflects the way we’ve played on the field this year. We don’t back down from anybody.”

News and Notes
Despite a 35-34 loss to the Baldwin-Wallace Yellow Jackets, Otterbein junior Dominic Jones had a nice afternoon on special teams and defense last Saturday.

Jones accounted for 128 return yards on the day, including an 81-yard touchdown. In addition to the kickoff returns, Jones registered 10 tackles, one sack and two pass breakups for the Cardinals.

Not to be outdone on his home field, Baldwin-Wallace senior defensive back Kevin Johnson tied a Finnie Stadium record with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The original mark was set during the 1979 season.

Hope junior defensive back Kyle Warren helped the Flying Dutchmen to a 35-24 win against Kalamazoo by registering 17 tackles. He had 12 unassisted tackles and 1.5 for loss, while also forcing a fumble and stepping in a passing lane to break up a pass.

Case Western Reserve was tested in a 48-36 win at Oberlin last Saturday, but passed those challenges with the help of senior wide receiver Zach Homyk. He caught ten passes and gained a career-high 201 yards with two touchdowns.

Homyk is part of the Spartans’ 36-game regular season winning streak and has never lost a contest prior to the postseason.

The Waynesburg Yellow Jackets did not take too kindly to losing at Bethany a week ago and they took out their frustrations on Geneva in a 55-42 victory. Waynesburg quarterback Brad Dawson accounted for four touchdowns, including a TD reception, and 391 yards of total offense en route being named the Presidents’ Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week.

Great Lakes Region Teams in D3football.com’s Top 25
No. 2 Mount Union (OAC): No change following a 28-14 win at Marietta
No. 8 Wittenberg (NCAC): No change after a 49-7 victory over Hiram
No. 11 Thomas More (PAC): Down one spot following a 31-9 win at Grove City
No. 13 Ohio Northern (OAC): No change after a 44-10 victory vs. Capital
No. 15 Trine (MIAA): No change following a 51-7 win over LaGrange

Others Receiving Votes: Wabash (NCAC), Case Western Reserve (UAA), Baldwin-Wallace (OAC) and Otterbein (OAC).

Games of the Week
Baldwin-Wallace (5-0, 4-0 OAC) at Ohio Northern (4-1, 3-1), Saturday, 1:30:
The Ohio Northern Polar Bears rebounded well with a 44-10 victory over the Capital Crusaders after falling 27-0 to Mount Union in Alliance two weeks ago. They finish off a two-week home stretch with a game against Baldwin-Wallace Saturday afternoon before heading to John Carroll and Marietta.

As the Polar Bears look to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth, the Yellow Jackets will try to remain undefeated with three weeks remaining before hosting Mount Union.

Washington University (3-2) at Wooster (3-2), Saturday, 1:00: Somebody will walk away with a .500 record, but both will head into the final games of conference play over the next four weeks. Neither the Bears nor the Fighting Scots can afford a setback with match-ups against three-time defending University Athletic Association champion Case Western Reserve on the horizon.

Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

2012-14 columnist: Brian Lester
2011 columnist: Dean Jackson
2007-10 columnist: Matt Florjancic

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