In college football, they don’t ask how, they ask, “How many?” No one knows that better than Stony Brook football coach Chuck Priore, who is trying to turn the page on three mediocre seasons since the move to the Colonial Athletic Association.

The Seawolves took their first big step when redshirt freshman Gavin Heslop blocked a North Dakota punt that Kye Morgan scooped and returned 7 yards with 8:52 left in the fourth quarter for what proved to be the winning touchdown in Stony Brook’s season-opening 13-9 victory Thursday night at LaValle Stadium.

The Fighting Hawks, who were ranked No. 19 and No. 21 in two FCS preseason polls and are among the favorites in the powerful Big Sky Conference, nearly pulled it out by driving to a fourth-and-1 at the Seawolves’ 24-yard line, but linebacker Shane Lawless, who had a career-high nine tackles and played every snap after spending the previous day on an IV while fighting a stomach ailment, stuffed running back Brady Oliviera for no gain.

“I told the team on Aug. 4 [when training camp opened], we had one goal, and that was to beat North Dakota,” Priore said. “I’m going to be very candid with you. This game needed to be a win for Stony Brook University. It was close, but it was a win. It’s in the left-hand column. It was an important win.”

The Seawolves outgained the Hawks 221 yards to 177 in a game dominated by two of the best defenses in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). Stony Brook quarterback Joe Carbone had a solid game, completing 16 of 32 passes for 159 yards, including nine first-down passes, but SBU managed only 65 yards of offense in the second half and rushed for only 62 yards in the game.

The Seawolves’ defense was every bit as good, holding the Hawks to 63 yards rushing and forcing two fumbles deep in SBU territory to stop drives. Safety Jaheem Woods had a brilliant game with 11 tackles, including three sacks, five tackles for a loss and one forced fumble, and rover Tyrice Beverette had seven tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery.

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The score was tied at 7 at halftime after North Dakota’s John Santiago broke a 16-yard TD run and SBU countered with a 61-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard fumble recovery for a TD by Cal Daniels after Jordan Gowins lost the ball before crossing the goal line.

Early in the third quarter, the Hawks gained a 9-7 lead when Stacey Bedell was tackled in the end zone for a safety. For a long time, it seemed as though that might hold up unless someone made a big play. When Woods sacked Keaton Studsrud for the third time at his own 28, it forced a punt by Austin Dussold. “We were going for it in that spot,” Priore said.

Morgan and Heslop both lined up on the left side. “They singled me up, and the guys in the shield [in front of the punter] weren’t pointing me out,” Heslop said. “I knew if I got a jump on the ball, I could get an easy block. That’s what happened.”

“I just bubbled outside to make sure I didn’t get blocked,” Morgan said. “I saw the ball and scooped it up and scored. Somebody had to make a big play.”

Stony Brook’s offense was grateful for the big play. “The defense came up huge like always, and the special teams came up with a big play,” Carbone said. “We got punched in the mouth a few times, but we responded. In the past, I don’t think we would have. It’s a pretty great start for us.”