BY CHRIS MACKOWIAK
After a ribbon cutting to unveil the new turf field and scoreboard, Sea Gull Stadium hosted the first Top 25 matchup of the season for #23 Salisbury as they welcomed in the #16 Albright College Lions.
The schools met each of the last two years: Salisbury winning in the ECAC South Atlantic Bowl 48-27 in 2014, and Albright winning 24-23 in a nail biter to start off the 2015 season.
A close matchup in the first half would give way to strong and aggressive Salisbury defense in the second half to seal a 34-18 victory for the Sea Gulls (1-0).
An already electric atmosphere with a packed stadium was charged to a new level on the first play of the game. On the initial kickoff by Albright K Kevin Goetz, Salisbury sophomore WR Sean Rowland found an open lane on the right side of the field and burst through. An attempt to tackle the speedy player near midfield came to no avail as Rowland tiptoed to stay in bounds and provide Salisbury the early 7-0 lead.
“What a great way to start a brand new scene first time on a brand new turf, first home game with a kickoff return. First thing that came to my mind honestly was ‘that was too good,” said Head Coach Sherman Wood.
Rowland, who finished with 186 All-Purpose yards, had one word in his head during the play: run.
“Just run, honestly. Just to run and run fast. Just run hard and make sure no one brings me down. Just the stadium and all that. It was just surreal. I don’t even feel like it happened,” said Rowland.
Following an Albright field goal, his second kick return would have similar success, setting Salisbury up with great field position for their second touchdown of the game to make it 14-3 through a Connor Canonico two-yard run.
“Honestly, I couldn’t do it without the blocking. I just use the lanes and the vision. They set it up for me. I thank them after every kick return,” added the sophomore wide receiver.
Albright (0-1) and QB Mike Knight would respond with a touchdown drive involving three catches by WR Malik Jackson who finished with 96 yards.
“When we were at 14-10 at halftime, I was a little disappointed that we gave up a touchdown but at the same time Albright had plenty of opportunities, and in the red zone defensively, we stepped up. Went into halftime and our goal was to win the first series of the third quarter and that’s what we did.”
From the second half on, the SU defense shut down four straight Albright drives including two that entered the red zone. The Sea Gulls amounted to two interceptions on the night alongside holding Albright to just 18 points after the Lions averaged 35.2 per game a season ago; one INT coming from freshman defensive back Andre Boone who had a strong night alongside the whole SU secondary.
Veteran defensive backs Christian Wilson and Shane Gaines both shined breaking up passes and pressuring receivers in order to throw Albright’s QB Knight off his mark on multiple occasions.
Boone, who totaled 6 tackles along with a pass breakup and an interception, noted the strong relationship the secondary has developed.
“I learn from them every play. And they trust me, and I trust them,” said the freshman.
“What we talked about all year during camp was ‘never give up on the play.’ Even if it seems like the ball is going to be completed, make sure to run through the receiver. That’s exactly what happened. Andre Boone, he was one of those kids. Just never gave up. I was really proud of our secondary because I know that was an area that they picked on us last year,” said Coach Wood.
Albright’s key offensive playmaker Mike Knight was never able to find a rhythm in the game. He finished 20 of 40 for 181 yards for no touchdowns and two interceptions.
The ability to adapt in the game was evident as Salisbury featured more passing from QB Ryan Jones (5/8 for 74 yards) in the second half to open up their ‘bread and butter,’ the triple option.
A seven minute touchdown drive drove nearly all momentum on to the Sea Gulls sideline late in the game and ultimately created the downfall for Albright.
Following a bye week, the Sea Gulls will welcome Montclair State into town on September 17th for the beginning of NJAC play for a noon start time.