SALISBURY, Md. – The No. 21 Salisbury University football team rushed for a season-high 559 yards and nine touchdowns and claimed the Empire 8 Athletic Conference's automatic qualification to the NCAA tournament with a 63-23 victory over Utica College at Sea Gull Stadium on Saturday.
Senior quarterback Dan Griffin ran for a game- and career-high five touchdowns with 137 yards and classmate superback Joe Benedetti added two scores and a game-best 153 yards on 19 carries on Senior Day.
The nine rushing TDs are the most for Salisbury (7-2, 5-1 Empire 8) since it matched the number in a 70-45 win at Utica last season. SU totaled 606 yards overall on the day; it was the first time Salisbury had over 600 yards of offense since the win against the Pioneers on Oct. 1, 2011.
Up, 7-3, on a with 3:01 left in the first quarter, Salisbury turned it on.
After a three and out from the Pioneers, Griffin took the first snap of the second quarter 56 yards down the sideline for a 21-3 lead. Dakota Peel fumbled the ensuing kickoff to linebacker James White on the Utica 24, setting up a Benedetti 13-yard touchdown that made it 28-3 with 12:56 to play in the second.
Utica quarterback Andrew Benkwitt connected with Jeremy Meier on a 58-yard pass and a 9-yard TD strike later in the drive to Joseph Gerbino to cut into the SU lead to 28-10 with 11:46 left in the half, but the Gulls responded with 10-play 75-yard drive, chewing up five minutes, that ended with a 4-yard Griffin score.
Utica (6-3, 4-2) marched to the Salisbury 16 on its next possession but senior safety Chris Everett intercepted Benkwitt in the end zone with 3:31 left to keep the Pioneers off the board.
Leading, 42-10, early in the third junior slot Lonnie Liggins, a transfer for the United States Military Academy, scored a 9-yard touchdown for his first as a Sea Gull to make it 49-10 with 11:03 left in the quarter.
Griffin added two more touchdowns of 2 and 1 yard, respectively sandwiched by a 22-yard rushing TD by UC's Jesse Baldassare and a 15-yard fumble recovery for a score by James Lenahan for the final margin.
The 30 points scored by Griffin in the game move him into second place all-time on SU's points-scored list with 258, six behind Mike Coppa (1984-87). Griffin also has 2,325 passing yards, good for sixth in school history, and his 2,550 rushing yards are eighth best.
Benedetti and Griffin ran for 8.1 yards per carry while Flanigan also posted 81 yards on seven attempts (10.9-yard average). Taylor and Liggins chipped in with 70 and 54 yards, respectively.
Benkwitt was 26-for-37 for 225 yards, a touchdown and interception to lead Utica. Meier posted nine catches and 112 yards. Baldassare had 68 yards and a TD on 17 carries.
Greg Stanton and Sal Carfaro had seven tackles apiece for Salisbury with Stanton picking off his team-leading fifth pass of the season in the fourth quarter. Senior Paul Moore led a group of five with six stops each; he also had a tackle for loss, a fumble recovery and three breakups.
Luke Manolescu paced five Pioneers with double-digit tackles with 15. Lenahan recovered two fumbles for Utica.
Salisbury travels to Frostburg State University next Saturday for the 14th annual Regents Cup beginning at 1 p.m.