Wesley rallies to thump RPI 45-27 in Division III tourney opener

Alex Kemp of Wesley took a short pass and turned it into a big gain in the first quarter Saturday against Renesselaer (RPI) in the first round of the NCAA tournament Saturday. Play set up Wesley’s first touchdown. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — Wesley Coach Mike Drass doesn’t necessarily like that his team has a habit of falling behind in the first half this season.

“We’re not trying to be a second half team,” Drass said. “We’re trying to play sixty minutes of football.”

But in Saturday’s first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Wesley found itself trailing early for the sixth time this season and fourth straight game before pulling away in the fourth quarter to a 45-27 victory.

“We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole today,” Drass said “I was really proud of how our kids did play in the second half to win this game.

Alex Kemp of Wesley bursts past RPI defender OliverKaija in NCAA 1st round Saturday. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

“In the second half, I thought that our kids did a much better job of playing defensively. Offensively, we came up with some big plays to put the game out of reach.”

Trailing 20-17 at halftime, Wesley (10-1) outscored the Engineers 28-7 in the second half to post their 13th straight victory in the tournament’s opening round.

The Wolverines will likely be on the road next week traveling to undefeated Empire Eight Champion Brockport next Saturday. The Golden Eagles defeated Plymouth State 66-0.

Wesley quarterback Khaaliq Burroughs passed for a career best 325 yards while completing 27-of-44 passes with four touchdown passes. The junior added 39 rushing yards.

Burroughs 15-yard scoring pass to E.J. Lee with just over a minute remaining in the third quarter gave Wesley a 31-27 lead that they never relinquished.

Wesley’s Alex Kemp cuts around a block for a gain after a pass reception in 1t round of the NCAA tournament Saturday.. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

Lee rushed for 116 yards on 29 carries, the 11th straight game in which he’s topped the century mark. His six-yard run midway through the third quarter gave Wesley 1 24-17 lead and capped a 67-yard drive. The sophomore added four receptions for 43 yards.

“Their defensive line was slanting pretty hard,” Lee said. “It was tough for the offensive line to pick up. Patience was the main thing I needed to have today.”

Meanwhile, junior receiver Alex Kemp hauled in 11 receptions for 149 yards, while adding 90 rushing yards on just three carries. The Caesar Rodney product scored on a 61-yard reverse to cap the Wolverines scoring in the fourth quarter. Earlier, just 22 seconds before the half, Kemp pulled Wesley even at 17-17 on a 23-yard catch and run from Burroughs.

The Engineers where able recover Wesley’s ensuing onside kick attempt and benefited from a 15-yard fair catch interference call that moved them into field goal range. Christian Kapp booted a 29-yard field goal to lift RPI to a 20-17 lead at the break.

The Engineers scored on the game’s opening drive with a well-executed 75-yard march that was capped by seven-yard run by Johnny Ramsdell. It is only the fourth rushing touchdown Wesley has allowed this season.

“The first half the last couple weeks we’ve taken punches,” Wesley linebacker Samer Manna said. “I think we only gave up like 90 yards rushing today. The defensive line did a great job.”

The Wolverine responded later in the opening quarter when Burroughs scrambled to his right and found Kianta Thompson in the end zone from 26 yards. The teams then exchanged field goals before The Engineers missed possibly their best chance to take control of the game in the second quarter.
Burroughs had a pass picked off by Engineer linebacker Oliver Kaija that set up RPI at the Wesley 25-yard line.

Freshman quarterback George Marinopoulos found Keaton Ackermann on the next play behind Wesley cornerback DaJahn Lowery to put RPI up 17-10.
Wesley was forced to punt on the following series and Nick Buhn dropped the snap and was tackled at the 22-yard line. Marinopoulos went for the end zone gain on the next play but Lowery intercepted this time just short of the end zone and returned to out to the 25-yard line. The ensuing drive ended on Kemp’s first touchdown.

“The thing about DaJahn is he never gets down on himself,” Said Wolverine linebacker Samer Manna. “He always has a short memory if something happens or he gets beat. That stuff really doesn’t bother him. He moves on to the next play.

Burroughs, who put up his best passing numbers of the season, was also able to shake off the interception.

“One thing we try to do on the offensive side of the ball is always keep each other up,” Kemp said. “No matter what he does, if he makes a bad pass I always tell him, keep your head up. You got this. We believe in you. After he threw the interception, he just bounced back from it He’s continuing to show what he can do out there.”

Marinopoulos, just a freshman, had led the Engineers to five straight victories since gaining the starting role for RPI at midseason. The rookie completed 21-of-36 for 227 yards with two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice and sacked five times.

Wesley will spend Thanksgiving on campus for 13th straight year with the victory. Manna, a senior, led the team with 13 tackles and looks forward another to at least one more week with his teammates.

“From my experience it’s worth it,” Manna said. “Staying here throughout the week while everyone’s going home to family. We’re family here too, so we’ll all be hanging out together Thanksgiving.”

EXTRA POINTS: Wesley outgained RPI 566 to 317….The Wolverines were a combined 10-of-21 on third and fourth down conversions…..Freshman Kimane Jones registered two sacks for Wesley, while Isaiah Ingram and Stephen Yorkman each had 1.5….Daquay Harris-Wimbush added an interception late in the fourth quarter….James Okike had a three-yard touchdown catch to extend the Wesley lead to 38-27 and had six receptions for 52 yards….Lee now has 21 rushing touchdowns this season passing the school record set by Brandon Steinheim in 1996. He has 23 this season overall….Next week’s opponent Brockport was a fellow member of the now defunct Atlantic Central Football Conference from 2004 to 2007. The teams have split six meetings.

Jason Bowen is a freelance writer from Dover and writes the Around the East column for d3football.com.

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