By Chris Mackowiak
The Salisbury University football team started off 2016 at 4-0 with dreams building towards a second consecutive New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) crown. The first night of the season under the ‘Friday night lights’ seemed to be a precursor for a bountiful campaign. It was Game No. 5 at Rowan University when the train went off the track.
As injuries to starting quarterback Ryan Jones and starting super back Connor Canonico piled up, the team was without certain core leaders and then fell just short in a battle with the top defense in the NJAC at the time.
After a brief three-game winning streak, the Sea Gulls still were on track to repeat as NJAC Champions, until they faced their rival Wesley Wolverines and Frostburg State Bobcats. The Wesley machine ran through Sea Gull Stadium in their mission for redemption following a 1-2 start to their season. Then, on the road in Frostburg, Salisbury fell victim to the Bobcats in the Regents Cup, which officially sent Salisbury’s hopes for an NJAC title packing.
While Salisbury did get a dominant win in the ECAC Legacy Bowl in Philadelphia, there was much left on the table to be desired after 2016. SU finished the season 8-3 (6-3 NJAC) and tied for third in the NJAC.
Now moving into 2017, there are many questions in the air surrounding Salisbury, mostly concerning the unknowns. In a year following a season without a conference title, maybe this ‘underdog’ title allows a higher ceiling for this Sea Gull squad; a squad picked to finish third in the NJAC this season. From the NJAC, only Wesley (No. 11) and Frostburg State (No. 17) were called upon in the D3football.com preseason rankings.
There is much talent to fill, especially on the offensive end, but time will tell as we move toward the start of the 2017 season as to which players to watch. For now, the released Salisbury schedule provides a road back for a second NJAC title in three years.
SU faces a similar road when they last won the NJAC title in 2015. There hope is for similar results. Below The Flyer breaks down the five most potent match-ups to watch for this 2017 season. Check the remaining schedule at the bottom of the article, and let us know your thoughts on SU and the road to the title.
Five match-ups to watch for:
Sept. 1: At Albright College; Shirk Stadium, Reading, Pa.
- 2016: 8-3 (7-2 MAC)
- Postseason: Defeated Franklin & Marshall in Centennial-MAC Bowl Series
- 2016 at SU: SU won 34-18 in season opener
The 2016 season opener marked the first football game to be held in the new Sea Gull Stadium. It did not disappoint from the start for Salisbury fans when SU sophomore wide receiver Sean Rowland returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.
While this game is sure to produce excitement, it is also a key test and resume builder for the Sea Gulls in Week No. 1 as it marks the only non-conference game of the regular season. Both Albright and Salisbury have become very familiar with each other, battling in the last three seasons.
For whoever takes over the SU starting quarterback job, most likely Brandon Lewis, it will be their first start and first chance to make a mark on 2017.
Oct. 7: Vs. Christopher Newport University; Sea Gull Stadium, Salisbury, Md.
- 2016: 7-3 (6-3 NJAC)
- 2016 vs. SU: SU won 45-24
Following an upset of Wesley early on in 2016, CNU was sailing through their campaign until they ran into a high-flying Sea Gulls offense. In 2015, CNU was one of the few teams to defeat the Sea Gulls, and the Captains provide a potential challenge looking into 2017.
CNU draws the Sea Gulls following SU’s2017 bye week, while the Captains come off of a home game against a formidable Rowan squad. On offense, senior quarterback K.J. Kearney returns to lead the charge after passing for over 2200 yards and 18 touchdowns, alongside just eight interceptions. Leading tackler and senior linebacker Brennan Gary returns on the defensive side of the ball, looking to add to his 17.5 tackles for loss a season ago.
Oct. 28: Vs. Rowan University; Sea Gull Stadium, Salisbury, Md.
- 2016: 6-4 (5-4 NJAC)
- 2016 vs. SU: Rowan won 34-30
The excitement builds up towards the final three games of the regular season. The good news for SU is that they host two of the three teams they fell to in 2016. The bad news is that the Sea Gulls face the three teams they lost to in 2016 within three consecutive weeks.
Rowan drew Salisbury at the right time in the schedule last season, when SU had offensive stars pretty bent up. They may not be so lucky this season. The Profs face SU as part of a two-game road stretch, following a trip to Dover, Del. to battle conference-favorite Wesley.
The Sea Gulls host Rowan as part of a two-game home stand. This series has brought fantastic football the last two seasons. One of the best offenses (SU) against one of the best defenses (Rowan). The Profs will yearn for better offense in 2017 after averaging only 18 points-per-game (PPG) in 2016.
Aiding their offense this season, is the return of now seniors, quarterback Dante Pinckney and running back Gawain Bragg. Pinckney enters his third season as the starter, after he passed for 1928 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. The 2016 leading-rusher Bragg looks to build on his 647 rushing yards last year.
Nov. 4: At Wesley College;
- 2016: 9-3 (8-1 NJAC); NJAC Co-Champions (received NCAA automatic berth)
- Postseason: Defeated Stevenson in NCAA First Round; fell at John Carroll in NCAA Second Round
- 2016 at SU: Wesley defeated SU 44-27
Wesley represents one of the toughest tests for Salisbury over the years. The match-up essentially decided the NJAC champion the last two seasons. Surely enough, it will again in 2017.
The Wolverines will look for a different start to 2017, after falling to both CNU and Delaware Valley to start 2016. The Dover, Del. college hosts SU as part of their final two-game home stand of the season, while SU travels up U.S. Route 13 in the midst of their toughest stretch.
For Wesley, Nick Falkenberg seems to be the hot hand under center to start 2017, over Dan Kesack. Both saw time starting over the course of 2016, but Falkenberg threw for 16 of 26 for 311 yards and four touchdowns in Salisbury last season. In the backfield, despite the departure of leading-rusher Jamar Baynard, sophomore E.J. Lee returns as a front runner for the starting job with his 512 yards on the ground last season.
Nov. 11: Vs. Frostburg State University;
- 2016: 10-1 (8-1 NJAC); NJAC Co-Champions
- Postseason: Defeated St. John Fisher in ECAC ASA S. Bushnell Bowl
- 2016 vs. SU: FSU won 21-17
The Sea Gulls are happy to have the Regents Cup back within the friendly confines of Sea Gull Stadium this season, following a loss in Frostburg. Memories of the miraculous second half comeback from SU quarterback Ryan Jones and former wide receiver Isaiah Taylor in 2015 flood this season finale.
Frostburg has proven a large growth in the last season and may find themselves once again at the table towards the end of the season. While this features the classic rivalry again, it also might be a pseudo NJAC title game.
The Bobcats’ toughest stretch is the first five games of the season when they face Stevenson, Rowan, CNU and Wesley. Junior quarterback Connor Cox should return as the starter in 2017 after accumulating 1,864 passing yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Alongside Cox’s 330 net rushing yards, junior leading-rusher Jamaal Morant returns with his 816 rushing yards.
Sept. 9: vs. William Patterson University; Sea Gull Stadium, Salisbury, Md.
- 2016: 2-8 (1-8 NJAC); SU won 77-19 at WPU last season
Sept. 16: at Kean University;
- 2016: 7-4 (5-4 NJAC); SU won at home 36-14 last season
- Postseason: Defeated Cortland State in ECAC Clayton Chapman Bowl
Sept. 23: at The College of New Jersey;
- 2016: 2-8 (2-7 NJAC); SU won 41-6 at home
Oct. 14: at Montclair State University;
- 2016: 7-3 (6-3 NJAC); SU won 45-24 at CNU last season
Oct. 21: vs. Southern Virginia University; Sea Gull Stadium, Salisbury, Md.
- 2016: 2-8 (1-8 NJAC); SU won 35-0 at SVU