Falkenberg, Wesley top Gulls, near NJAC title

SALISBURY, Md. — Two months ago, the Wesley College football team and Nick Falkenberg tripped across the season’s starting line.

The Wolverines lost to Delaware Valley and Falkenberg lost his starting job at quarterback.

But on Saturday afternoon, with their season riding on one game, the Wolverines and Falkenberg proved it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.

Back as the starting QB, Falkenberg threw for four touchdowns and ran for another as Wesley rolled past No. 18 Salisbury, 44-27, at sunny Sea Gull Stadium.

By running their winning streak to six games in a row, the Wolverines (7-1 NJAC, 7-2 overall) all but clinched the New Jersey Athletic Conference crown.

QB Nick Falkenberg, shown in action last week, threw for 4TDs and ran for another. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

QB Nick Falkenberg, shown in action last week, threw for 4TDs and ran for another. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

All that stands between Wesley now and the program’s 12th straight NCAA Division III playoff appearance is a victory over last-place William Patterson on Saturday in its regular-season finale.

“It feels great,” said senior receiver Bryce Shade, who caught a pair of TD passes. “Nobody counted us in at this time of the year. They all thought we were done after our first two losses. We came back as a team and showed people that the same Wesley is still here.”

“It’s extremely gratifying to be in this situation,” said coach Mike Drass, “after being 1-2 to start the season.”

While plenty of Wolverines made big plays against the Sea Gulls (6-2 NAC, 7-2), Falkenberg led the charge.

The junior QB completed 16-of-26 passes for 311 yards with the four TDs with no interceptions. But the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder also made some big plays with his feet, running for 44 yards on seven carries.

With just 14 seconds left in the first half, Falkenberg eluded a pass rusher and scrambled nine yards for a TD that stretched Wesley’s lead to 27-13.

“A hidden talent,” Falkenberg joked about his running ability. “Our offensive line did an amazing job on the outside runs to the right.

“That he has confidence in me, that he trusts me, it’s good to know,” he said about Drass starting him in the crucial game. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this. I studied hard and practiced hard. … I calmed myself down, went through my progressions and just played the game without thinking too much.”

“That’s the best he ever played,” said Shade, who had six receptions for 172 yards. “He really controlled the offense. He put the ball where he had to, made the audibles he had to make and won us the game. He showed us that he’s a leader and he’s ready to play.”

At the end of a back-and-forth first half, the game turned in Wesley’s favor on a critical nine-minute stretch.

First, running back Jamar Baynard (21 carries-93 yards) gave the Wolverines a 20-13 lead when he spun into the end zone on a 10-yard scoring run with 8:53 left in the second quarter.

But the Gulls then looked like they might tie things back up when they drove the length of the field. Salisbury decided to go for it on a fourth-and-three from the Wesley nine.

But quarterback Ryan Jones’ pass zipped through a receiver’s hands in the end zone with 2:09 remaining before halftime.

Rather than run out the half — even after a penalty pushed the Wolverines back to the five — Falkenberg instead launched a 51-yard pass to Shade, who was a step behind a defender running down the sideline.

A 29-yard pass to Baynard then set up Falkenberg’s nine-yard scoring run.

“We never settle,” Falkenberg said about the last-minute drive. “We always try to score.”

Falkenberg, who also threw a pair of scoring passes to Alex Kemp, just returned to the starting lineup in last week’s win over Montclair State.

“Last week he made some big-time throws,” said Drass. “We really thought, going into this game, we needed to try to put him in a position of confidence and let him make throws. And he made some great throws. Going up 27-13 at halftime was huge.”

Wesley just kept going in the second half, eventually reeling off 37 unanswered points to open up a 44-13 lead in the fourth quarter.

The icing on the cake came when Falkenberg again hit Shade in stride down the sidelines, this time for a 58-yard scoring pass with 6:49 left in the game.

In the first quarter, Salisbury ran the ball well as Wesley adjusted to defending the triple option. But the Wolverines also twice forced the Sea Gulls to kick field goals.

After the first quarter, Wesley shut out Salisbury until giving up a pair of meaningless touchdowns in the final 3:15.

The Wolverines forced three second-half fumbles, two of them recovered by linebacker D.C. Caine, to hold Salisbury at bay. Caine said Wesley hadn’t forgotten that the Sea Gulls spoiled its Senior Day last year by snapping the Wolverines’ 10-game winning streak in the series.

“That was sweet to get a little bit of revenge,” said Caine. “Our defense, we’ve grown to be resilient. We didn’t have the best start (to the season). But we’ve worked hard in practice, we kept focused.

“The offense was giving us momentum and the defense, we would build on the momentum and carry it on. It was pretty good having that.”

As his team gathered around him after the game, Drass greeted his players with a shout of “Who wants to win a conference championship next week?”

“All week long we were confident that we could win this game,” said Drass. “We had to work for it and we had to earn it. That was our theme throughout the week ‘Let’s earn a victory.’”.

Extra points

Linebacker Ben Robinson had a team-high 12 tackles and forced a fumble. … Capp Miller, who was playing his first game as a safety after moving from receiver, added 11 tackles and a forced fumble. … Kemp had three catches for 37 yards. Tight end Andrew Eagle had a career-high three catches for 36 yards. … Indian River High grad Aarron Moore, a senior for Salisbury, ran twice for 28 yards before leaving the game with a leg injury. … Frostburg State remained tied with Wesley for first place in the NJAC. But the Wolverines hold the tiebreaking edge after beating the Bobcats eary in the season.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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