BY RICKY POLLITT
After a fourth quarter 20-point comeback victory to send them to the NCAA tournament, the Salisbury University football team will travel to New York to take on SUNY Cortland to begin their quest for glory.
Both Salisbury and Cortland enter the tournament for the first time since 2012, where both advanced to the second round before getting defeated.
Salisbury and Cortland swapped conferences before entering the 2015 season. Salisbury went from the Empire 8 to the New Jersey Athletic Conference, with Cortland doing the opposite.
After claiming the conference’s top spots, both teams look poised to go into the tournament with a chance to do some damage.
The Sea Gulls (9-3, 6-1 NJAC) enter the tournament with one of the best rushing offenses in DIII. Averaging 345.7 rushing yards per game, Salisbury will rely on a number of weapons to get the ground-and-pound game going.
Slot backs Jerome Johnson and Aarron Moore have combined for 1,236 yards on the ground while tallying 16 touchdowns. Super back Connor Canonico has also contributed 746 yards and 8 TDs.
Along with a strong run game, Salisbury has looked to its passing game, and quarterback Ryan Jones, who has given the Gulls an added boost through the air; something the Sea Gulls have not had since Dan Griffin in 2012.
During the regular season, Jones recorded 1,125 passing yards and 13 touchdowns, while also putting up 504 yard and seven touchdowns on the ground.
Jones has heavily relied on his number one target, wide receiver Isaiah Taylor, who has caught seven touchdown passes, and recorded 701 receiving yards.
Averaging 44.8 points a game, Cortland will have its hands full trying to cover all of Salisbury’s weapons.
Despite letting up over 20 points in all but two games this season, the Salisbury defense continues to put up strong numbers in the second half of the season.
The front-seven has been a force to reckon with this season with linebackers James Hall and Nick Batastini leading the way with 6.5 sacks and 48 tackles combined between the two.
In the secondary, Salisbury has looked to defensive backs Christian Wilson and Denzel Bibbs to shut down opposing offenses. Wilson has intercepted three passes; one returned for a touchdown, and forced a fumble while tallying 60 total tackles.
Transfer safeties Mike Hale and Shane Gains have also had their presence known, with the duo combining for 51 tackles, 10 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Gains was tabbed NJAC Defensive Rookie of the week four times throughout the season.
With a powerful run-stuffing unit, and a speedy secondary, the Cortland offense may struggle putting points on the board.
The Red Dragons (8-2, 6-2 Empire 8) are determined to prove the season has not been a fluke.
The offense has averaged 33.1 points per game, and put up over 400 yards of total offense in almost every matchup.
Cortland has developed a balance of run and pass in order to achieve the success they already have. Quarterback Steven Ferreira had one of the best seasons in DIII throwing for 2,448 yards and 23 touchdowns. Much like Jones for Salisbury, he was able to get the job done with his legs, accounting for five rushing scores.
Ferreira has developed great chemistry with all his receivers, spreading the ball around to his top three wide outs: Nick Wagner (609 yards, 4 TDs), John Mannix (878 yards, 9 TDs) and Jake Smith (584 yards, 6 TDs).
The run game has looked to the duo of Dylan Peebles and Donny Davis, who have combined for 1,021 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Both players average just under five yards a carry, making them a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Cortland’s defense mirrors Salisbury’s in almost every category. Much like the Gulls, the Red Dragons allow around 28 points per game, while letting up just over 400 yards every game.
Despite the numbers, Cortland has several talented defenders who have helped carry the team when the offense was not clicking.
Defensive backs Carson Lassiter and Mark DelPrete have put up eight interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Along with their speed, their tackling abilities have also been present with the duo, recording 118 combined tackles.
Lineman Jake Ceresna has also been a powerhouse on defense, tallying 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. The senior has also recorded six break-ups and recovered a fumble.
With six different players having interceptions during the season, Cortland will look to take out Salisbury’s top receivers and make the Gulls rely solely on their run game.
The Sea Gulls and Red Dragons have only faced off once before, in the 1983 season, with Salisbury coming out with a 25-0 victory.
The winner of the game will take on the winner of another first-round matchup between Linfield College and Whitworth University in the second round. The Sea Gulls have never matched up with either potential second-round opponent.
IF YOU GO:
What: Salisbury vs. SUNY Cortland (NCAA Tournament 1st Round)
Where: SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex
When: Saturday, November 21, 12:00 p.m.