By Chris Mackowiak
After a dominating 77-19 win at William Paterson, No. 22 Salisbury (5-1, 4-1) returns to Sea Gull Stadium with a confident demeanor and overall health to take on their next New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) challenger Kean University (3-3, 2-3). While Salisbury should win the battle on paper, Kean brings the element of surprise with a uniquely talented offense and veteran defense.
The Sea Gulls triple option attack heads into Saturday afternoon’s matchup full of confidence following their 77 point performance at William Patterson. Salisbury continues to lead the NJAC in points per game (42.6) and total offense (493.5 yards per game).
The central part of the offense stays as the rushing attack with all four key positions putting up strong numbers. Senior super back Connor Canonico accumulated over 134 yards rushing in each of the last two games he has appeared in (missed the game at Rowan).
It would not be surprising to see senior quarterback Ryan Jones target his wide receivers more often in the game because Kean ranks ninth in the NJAC in pass defense. Speedy sophomore wide receiver Sean Rowland caught a pass for touchdown while racking up a total of 31 yards receiving against William Paterson.
Jones is protected by a stout offensive line up front that has consisted of the same five starters all season. The offensive line has allowed only four sacks all season, which is the best in the NJAC.
Troubles with the Rowan offense two weeks ago sent the team’s defensive statistics back a little, but the team seems younger and fresher moving forward. Freshmen linebacker Patrick Bernardo and safety Andre Boone are seeing increased time in starting lineup following breakout performances.
Bernardo has accumulated 10 tackles in two separate games this season which has propelled him into the starting lineup the last two weeks. Boone comes into Saturday’s affair leading the team in solo tackles (16) while also second on the team in total tackles (32).
It will be a different challenge for the defense this week facing a dual threat talent that can turn his legs on if the pass is not there. The team will be keying in on the QB-contain approach. If Kean sophomore quarterback Charles App is able to break through multiple times, it could be a long day for the Sea Gulls.
It will be key from the start to get pressure on App to force him out of the pocket and into those tough situations. The only thing really working against Salisbury is that they have difficulties finishing the play when getting to the quarterback. The Sea Gulls are last in the conference in sacks (5).
The Cougars run a balanced offense that has seen productive moments this season while also becoming shut down at other times. Averaging only 16.2 points per game, Kean will need some explosive plays from their quarterback App to leave Salisbury with the upset.
The positive for Kean is that they have the talent to give the Sea Gulls multiple looks to think about. Their starting junior tailback Brian Matthews has 575 yards on the ground this season. During his weekly coaches luncheon, SU Head Coach Sherman Wood compared Matthews to Montclair State back John Distefano who Salisbury faced earlier this season. DiStefano rushed his first touch of the ball back for a touchdown against the Sea Gulls defense on Sept. 17.
App has four main wide receivers to target that each have over 140 yards receiving this season. A central strategy of Kean is to find the gaps between the linebackers and secondary on crossing routes. This will force a lot of zone play from the Salisbury defense considering they also must contain the running ability of App.
The Cougars feature a defense that is one of the more veteran sides in the conference. Ten of the eleven typical starters on defense are upperclassmen. While the team seems to be a middle-of-the-pack defense on paper, they are a squad that can adjust well and potentially take down Salisbury’s triple option.
Up front on the defensive line, Kean possesses big bodies in the trenches to prepare to battle Canonico. Most notably in the front seven is junior linebacker Darin Hungerford. Hungerford recorded 21 tackles against their 48-17 loss to Wesley last week. This is included with three separate games this season when the linebacker tallied 11 or more tackles.
The secondary features athletic talent despite giving up 187.7 passing yards per game. Multiple players possess the ability to make acrobatic plays to deflect passes away from receivers and also intercept the ball.
Senior cornerback Austin Davis is coming off of a career-defining where when he grabbed nine interceptions out of the air which played him on multiple All-American and All-Conference teams. Kean features a player that sees considerable time on both sides of the ball at safety and wide receiver in senior LeRon Dillard. Dillard saw his first action on defense last week when he tallied 12 tackles against Wesley.
Junior safety Vaughn Scott will be on the field multiple times too. Scott is the central return man for Kean on both punts and kick returns. While he has not returned a kick for a touchdown yet, Scott has a return long of 37 yards this season.
Salisbury X-Factor and Injuries
Salisbury’s special teams continued to shine last week on the opening kickoff. Senior slot back Aarron Moore took the return back the other way for an opening touchdown to set the tone for the rest of the day against William Paterson. Salisbury is the only team in the NJAC to have a kick return for touchdown this season and also is nationally ranked third in Division III in kick return average (30.9).
Also with special teams has been the injury plague to starting junior punter Tim Steindl who is questionable for the game against Kean following an injury during warmups ahead of the William Paterson game. It was an usual incident on the road that threw junior kicker Alex Potocko into punting and kickoff duties alongside his usual field goal responsibilities.
In case Steindl cannot go, sophomore Trevor Skoglund will be available to take over. Skoglund replaced Steindl for two games earlier this season while the junior recovered from a concussion.
At the coaches luncheon, Coach Wood also announced that junior super back Dandre Dennis is now out for the year due to an injury. Dennis was the backup for Canonico this season, including replacing him as a starter for the game at Rowan while Canonico was out with a concussion.
Junior Malique Pratt will see more reps in Dennis’ place starting tomorrow. The backs might have a little more motivation to play tough tomorrow because of their fallen comrade.