DOVER — Through 30 minutes, Framingham State made Wesley College work for every yard it gained.
But, on the second play of the second half, quarterback Joe Callahan saw the Rams line up in a defensive formation the Wolverines had been waiting for.
Callahan changed the play and then dropped a picture-perfect 69-yard touchdown pass into the hands of receiver Alex Kemp.
The long TD finally gave Wesley a 14-point cushion and helped propel the Wolverines to a tough 42-22 victory over Framingham State in the first round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs at Miller Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Wesley (10-1) has now won 11 straight playoff openers. But this victory was as hard-earned as any of them for the Wolverines, who go to Baltimore for a noon game with Johns Hopkins (11-0) next Saturday.
Wesley and the Rams were tied 14-14 before the Wolverines scored a touchdown in the final minute of the first half and then started the second half with Callahan’s 69-yarder to Kemp, the Caesar Rodney High grad.
When Callahan saw that Kemp was one-on-one with a cornerback — with no safety helping out — he changed the play at the line of scrimmage.
“We mentioned it quickly at halftime,” said Callahan. “They gave us a look that we wanted. Alex beat the corner and made a great play.”
“I saw the corner was playing up close and the safety was out of position,” said Kemp. “All I had to do was beat the corner and catch the ball. Joe hit me in stride. It was a great play.”
The touchdown was one of the highlights of the biggest game of Kemp’s young college career. The redshirt freshman, who converted from QB last spring, caught six passes for 143 yards with three TDs.
Callahan, who completed 32-of-42 passes for 411 yards with four touchdowns, said it was just Kemp’s day.
“He made a lot of big plays when he had the ball in his hands,” said Callahan. “Each game it seems like somebody different steps up. Alex really had a great game today. He made a lot of big plays on short passes, deep passes. He was a guy that we could really turn to when we needed someone.”
Wesley had three receivers go over 100 yards. Besides Kemp, Bryce Shade had 10 catches for 107 yards and a touchdown while James Okike added 116 yards on nine catches.
The Wolverines needed to turn to their passing game so much because Framingham’s big defensive line was holding Wesley’s running game in check. Jamar Baynard did run for 74 yards and a pair of short touchdowns on 20 carries.
But the Wolverines ran for only 92 total yards. The Rams also sacked Callahan for a safety in the third quarter that gave them back the ball trailing just 28-16.
On the ensuing possession, Framingham got as far as the Wesley 13 before an interception by Craig Pettit at the goal line ended the drive.
The Wolverines converted that turnover into a nine-play, 65-yard scoring drive. Kemp’s 11-yard touchdown catch with 11:35 remaining in the contest gave Wesley a more-comfortable 35-16 advantage.
“It really came down to buckling up and listening to what the coaches were preaching all week,” said defensive tackle Dan Laguerre, who had three sacks. “All we had to do was execute.”
“We’ve always talked around here that there’s a lot of work that goes into winning a game,” said Wesley coach Mike Drass. “I think you saw that today for both teams. But, to be honest, there was some sloppiness that shouldn’t happen in week 11. That’s something that we really have to address. That’s my fault.”
Drass was particularly disappointed in a roughing-the-passer penalty that wiped out a 100-yard interception return for a TD by safety Andre Connally. The penalty set up the Rams’ last touchdown.
“It was just a bonehead play,” said Drass. “If we’re going to keep advanncing, we’ve got to get rid of those plays.”
Framingham quarterback Matt Silva was as good as advertised. The senior ran for 68 yards on 16 carries while completing 26-of-52 passes for 312 yards and two TDs.
In the end, it just wasn’t enough to keep pace with Wesley’s high-scoring attack.
Ram coach Tom Kelley, whose team was in the NCAAs for the third time in the last four years, thought the play of Callahan is what separated the two teams.
“Callahan is an unbelievable quarterback,” said Kelley. “I think he was the difference in the game. He reads the defense really well. When he gets in trouble, he can throw it. Even when we’d get two or three guys on him, he’s getting the ball out of there.
“He’s a general out there. It’s tough.”
Linebacker Samer Manna had a team-high 13 tackles for Wesley. ... The Wolverines had five sacks... Wesley punted only twice, once by Kemp and once by a Callahan on a quick kick. ... Wolverine tight end Kyle George saw only limited action because of a leg injury. His backup, Tory Robinson, didn’t suit up after twisting his ankle in gym class during the week. Andre Eagle saw some playing time in their place.