By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
With a triple-option offense under SU head football coach Sherman Wood, most fans see Salisbury’s primary threat as their backs in the rush attack. After Saturday, a new confidence may have propelled the SU defense into a similar position.
The headlines on paper read of the offensive battle to be played on the field Saturday between Salisbury and Christopher Newport. The Homecoming rivalry match-up pitted Salisbury’s top-ranked conference rushing attack (252.6 yards per game) against the Captains’ top-ranked conference passing attack (258.4 yards per game). It was instead the other side of the ball that made the headlines.
It was quickly apparent in the first two drives of the game with neither team making much of an impact. The entire first half was relatively quiet for each prolific offense as 10 of the 11 combined offensive drives ended in punts.
“We just stuck with our game plan. It was a grind going both ways in the first half. I thought our defense did a super job keeping them out of the end zone. That was huge because they had the number one passing offense in the conference,” Wood said.
Salisbury was the only side able to break through in the first half, coming in the first quarter. With CNU punting from deep in their own territory, senior slot back Blake Joppy had a signature 20-yard return to the Captains’ 34 yard-line. Joppy is 18th in the nation in punt return average.
From there, Salisbury only moved the ball three yards, putting things in place for their kicker. In just his second attempt of 2017, senior kicker Alex Potocko connected with a 34-yard field goal.
Those three points were enough to give Salisbury the lead entering the half, 3-0.
To try and kick-start their offense, CNU first-year head coach Art Link made the call to go with sophomore quarterback Jack Anderson in the second half over starting senior quarterback K.J. Kearney. Kearney has over 3,500 career passing yards and was named to the 2016 All-NJAC first team.
The move was fruitful for the Captains as they marched down to the Salisbury 32-yard line. It was then that the Sea Gull defense expressed their bend-but-don’t-break mentality when the Captains attempted a fourth down conversion.
— Chris Mackowiak (@cmackowiakSGSN) October 8, 2017
In a throw to the left side, Anderson targeted wide receiver Khiry Weaver. However, sophomore free safety John Steele covered Weaver one-on-one well, breaking up the pass in the coverage. Steele had only one tackle entering Saturday’s game, but ended as one of the noted names of the day.
“I don’t know. I was just patient. I knew it was a slower receiver so if he went to the outside, I could react to the inside move. He tried to break outside so I broke inside and just reacted,” Steele said.
It was a recent positional switch that may have put Steele in the position to make the play.
“Huge play. John was just moved to corner two weeks ago. For him to make that play is a big confidence booster. Tall and big kid on the corner, that makes a big difference,” Wood said. “I was real proud of him.”
CNU’s close encounter with scoring seemed to ignite the Salisbury offense with Salisbury marching down the field on their next two drives. In between, CNU had a three-and-out as SU’s defense continued to prevail.
With senior slot back Ryan Kolb back from a hand injury that kept him out since the season opener, the rushing offense got going in the third quarter. Fellow senior slot back Brady Curley had a strong game rushing 17 times for 99 yards. On both scoring drives, Curley set things up with first down runs down to the 12-yard line.
On the way to those runs, Kolb was blocking for his teammate along the way, rushing for 58 yards of his own.
“It’s a great thing to have him back,” Curley said. “We missed him big time, and people don’t realize how much you really need two slots to run this offense.”
Impressing coach Wood in the second half were the Salisbury super backs. Both seniors Malique Pratt and Dandre Dennis found holes up the middle for big rushes in the first quarter with Dennis finding the end zone on 12-yard run in the third quarter.
For their second touchdown drive, Pratt had an instrumental 30-yard rush into CNU territory. Later on, cutting inside on an outside pitch, Curley ran in untouched from 12-yards out to extend SU’s lead to 17-0.
“I thought the super backs Malique and Dandre did a great job. Obviously, it starts up front with those guys blocking because they were really pressing on the flanks. We thought that if we could just mix something up inside and get that going, then open up outside again, it’s a tough offense to stop,” Wood said.
Now with their backs against the way, the Captains got their air-raid offense going for a quick drive. Anderson found junior wide receiver Joshua Davis for a 45-yard grab and run setting the Captains up in Sea Gull territory. On the next play, Anderson found Davis again for CNU’s first points of the day on an 18-yard touchdown.
That was the only scoring the Captains saw for the rest of the game. Their next time in SU territory featured a missed field goal.
With the SU defense continuing to pressure the pocket, Salisbury tallied three sacks and eight tackles for loss. It is Salisbury’s third straight game with at least two sacks. SU stopped CNU two more times on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
Steele almost had an interception to end his day with the ball just slipping off his fingertips. Entering the game with nine tackles, senior defensive end Malik Hollings and also senior linebacker were regulars in the backfield with each player recording a sack.
The big takeaway from the contest was the improvement of the SU secondary. After giving up 38 points to Albright to start the season, the secondary persisted in disrupting a potent CNU pass attack, recording five pass-breakups.
“That defense, it’s the best I’ve seen before,” junior free safety Shane Gaines said. “This is a resilient defense and they showed it today. With John and other guys coming in, they showed resiliency.”
With the win, Salisbury remains undefeated in New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) play. No. 11 Frostburg State fell to No. 19 Wesley on Saturday too, leaving Wesley and Salisbury as the lone teams undefeated at the top of the conference.
The win moves Wood up to a 17-2 record at SU in Homecoming games. The Sea Gulls hit the road next week to face the Montclair State Red Hawks ; a team that the Sea Gulls took down 40-20 last season.
While this SU defense was putting up stronger numbers in the past few weeks, they needed a statement performance and win to solidify their confidence, now they have that moving forward.
“These guys stay on me everyday about working hard. They’re just my brothers because without them none of this would have been possible today,” Steele said.