DOVER — The No. 1 passing offense in Division III football had two minutes to go 89 yards.
Wesley College has done that countless times over the last few seasons, but things were different on Saturday.
The Wolverines couldn’t convert on their final drive and were left to watch Salisbury celebrate a 38-35 victory on their homefield. It’s the first regular season Wesley loss in Dover since 2010.
“I think this is the first two-minute drill we’ve come up short on in the past five years,” said Wesley quarterback Joe Callahan. “It really hurts.”
Salisbury kicker Alex Potocko nailed a 36-yard field goal with 2:23 left to give the Sea Gulls their first win over Wesley in 10 years. The victory also gives Salisbury the inside track to the NJAC title, in both team’s first year as members of the conference.
All the Sea Gulls (6-1 NJAC, 6-2 overall) have to do is beat Frostburg State next weekend to clinch the conference championship and the automatic bid to the Division III NCAA Tournament that goes with it.
“There’s no description for this feeling right now,” said Salisbury running back Jerome Johnson, a Cape Henlopen High product who scored a touchdown and had 157 yards of total offense.
“It’s amazing to be a part of this class, to do it with a group of brothers. This is the best feeling in the world, to be honest. There’s nothing like it. This is what you play for.”
With Wesley (7-1 NJAC, 8-1 overall) likely out of the race for the automatic bid, the Wolverines’ tournament hopes could be in jeopardy.
“I have no idea,” Callahan said. “I really don’t know how the playoff system works. I don’t know how they pick teams. I’m pretty sure we lost the NJAC today, so there goes the automatic bid. I don’t know what’s ahead of us.”
“That’s out of our hands,” said Wesley coach Mike Drass. “The only thing we can control is going to William Patterson (in the season finale next week) and getting a win. We have to focus on that.”
Callahan had his typical big day for the Wolverines, throwing for 440 yards and three touchdowns. The senior also rushed for 87 yards and another score on 11 carries.
With the ball in his hands, Wesley clearly had a chance to take the lead or get into field goal range on its last drive. It started out well when Callahan connected with James Okike for a 28-yard completion to the Wesley 39-yard line.
But Callahan’s next two passes were dropped by open Wesley wide receivers — one at the first down marker and one over the top of the Sea Gull defense. Callahan had to scramble for five yards on the next play, setting up a 4th-and-5 situation.
He wasn’t able to get a strong pass off, Salisbury had enough pressure to wrap up Callahan, who had to blindly fling the ball in desparation toward the first down marker where it dropped incomplete.
“Nobody really came open,” said Callahan on the final play. “Fourth down for the game you really just have to get it out of your hands.”
Wesley was held scoreless for the fourth quarter. The Wolverines had a 41-yard touchdown by Okike called back for a holding penalty and a hold also wiped out a 35-yard scramble by Callahan to bring Wesley into the red zone in the fourth.
The Wolverines were penalized nine times on the day for 70 yards.
“The entire fourth quarter it seemed like we were 2nd-and-20 or 3rd-and-20 with holding calls,” Drass said. “I’m looking forward to watching the film to see what put us in those situations and why we were holding. It’s kind of crazy for every series to have holding calls. I hope we’re better coaches than that.”
“We had a lot of big plays but penalties came back to haunt us,” Callahan said. “It took the momentum away from us and it really puts the defense in a tough spot when you stop scoring.”
Wesley took the lead twice in the second half, first on Kyle George’s 16-yard touchdown catch and again on Jamar Baynard’s 51-yard reception, but the Sea Gulls answered with a touchdown on their very next drive both times.
“We didn’t play well enough to win to be honest,” Drass said.
Salisbury punter Tim Steindl, a Caesar Rodney High grad, had a pair of punts downed inside the 10. Steindl also handles kickoff duties for the Sea Gulls and recorded two touchbacks. ... Wesley out-gained the Sea Gulls 618-455 in total offense. ... Bryce Shade caught seven passes for 108 yards and had the opening touchdown reception for Wesley on a 55-yard pass by Callahan. ... Roderick Caine led the Wesley defense with 10 tackles and two sacks while Craig Pettit had an interception.