SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University football team, ranked No. 21 in the D3football.com Top 25 poll, is making its first appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament since the 2012 season. The Sea Gulls will be traveling to No. 25 State University of New York at Cortland on Saturday, November 21 for an NCAA first-round contest; the opening kickoff is set for 12 p.m.
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How we got here
The Sea Gulls finished the regular season with a 7-1 record in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, earning the league's automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, in their first season in the conference. The Sea Gulls clinched the NJAC co-championship with their 28-27 victory over Frostburg State University in their final regular-season game. Junior Ryan Jones led a 20-point, fourth-quarter comeback over the Bobcats, culminating in a 10-yard game-winning touchdown pass to senior Isaiah Taylor; Jones totaled three touchdown passes in the final quarter.
By defeating then-No. 3 Wesley College, 38-35, on November 7 on a game-winning field goal from sophomore Alex Potocko, Salisbury won the head-to-head advantage in the NJAC co-championship to be awarded the league's automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
How they got here
Cortland played its first season in the Empire 8 Athletic Conference in 2015, earning the conference's automatic qualifier to the tournament, after winning the league co-championship with a 6-2 record in conference play during the regular season. The Red Dragons defeated Ithaca College 11-8 in their final game of the regular season to clinch the Empire 8 co-championship. With a 34-17 win over St. John Fisher College earlier in the season, Cortland earned the head-to-head advantage for the automatic bid into the postseason touranament.
Last time we met
On October 1, 1983, the Sea Gulls and Red Dragons met in their only previous matchup. Salisbury took a 25-0 win on the strength of 226 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Maury Jarmon led the way with 81 yards and two touchdowns, while Dwayne Humenik added 75 yards and one score. Current Assistant Head Coach Robb Disbennett tallied the team's fourth touchdown on a pass to Kevin Bedwell. Jarmon's first score gave the Gulls their lead, 6-0, in the first quarter on a 53-yard run, and they never looked back. After leading 12-0 at halftime, Jarmon notched his second score to start a 13-point fourth quarter to secure the win.
The Red Dragons are led by their passing game, which ranks 10th in the country in efficiency with a 172.22 passer rating. As a team, Cortland also ranks 14th in the nation with a .663 completion percentage. Steven Ferreira sits 15th in the country with a 166.7 passer rating and has thrown for 2,448 yards and 23 touchdowns so far this season. He is completing 65.8 percent of his passes, consistently finding the Red Dragons' leading receivers Nick Wagner (45 catches) and Jon Mannix (44 catches). Wagner has totaled 609 yards and four touchdowns, while Mannix has 878 yards and nine scores. The defense is led by Carson Lassiter's 86 total tackles and Jake Ceresna's 7.5 sacks. Mark DelPrete has pulled down five interceptions on the year.
Coming full circle
The Sea Gulls and Red Dragons essentially traded places for the 2015 season, as Salisbury moved from the Empire 8 Athletic Conference to the New Jersey Athletic Conference. Cortland made the opposite move, transitioning to the Empire 8 from the NJAC in 2015. Both teams had strong first seasons in their new respective conferences, as both finished the year as conference champions. Today's matchup brings both teams back around to face off against the winner of each of their former conferences.
The Salisbury passing game is having its best season since 2011. This season, the team has combined for 50 catches for 1,152 yards and 14 touchdowns; both the yardage and the touchdowns are the most since 2011, when the Gulls threw for 1,263 yards and 16 scores. Jones has thrown for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns on the year, both of which are the most since 2011, as well, when Dan Griffin threw for 1,208 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Taylor has reaped the rewards of the strong passing game this year, as he has had the most productive receiving season for the Sea Gulls since the 1985 and 1986 seasons. Taylor has hauled in 30 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns on the year. His yardage total is the most since Chris Holston went for 954 yards in 1986, and his touchdowns are the most since Holston tallied eight in 1985.
The Salisbury offense continues to be ranked in the top three in the conference in three major offensive categories. The Gulls currently rank second in scoring offense (44.8 points per game) and total offense (473.7 yards per game); Salisbury's scoring offense also ranks 12th in the country. The ground game is what keeps the offense on track, leading the league and ranking second in the country with 345.7 rushing yards per game. Senior Jerome Johnson leads the team with 861 yards on the year, boasting a 11.2 yards-per-carry average and finding the end zone 10 times. He has a long of 62 yards this season. Johnson is averaging 95.7 yards per game, joining junior Connor Canonico (82.9 YPG) and Jones (56.0 YPG) to give the team a trio of runners racking up big yards each game.
The winner of Saturday's game will take on the winner of another first-round contest between No. 2 Linfield College and Whitworth University, ranked No. 21 in the American Football Coaches' Association poll, in the NCAA second round. The second round is set for Saturday, November 28.