A football team is a collection of moving body parts, and when a slew of those parts break down, the damage often is reflected on the scoreboard. So, Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore’s anatomy of Saturday’s 39-31 loss to Richmond necessarily revolves around the anatomies of a defense in disrepair.
Even before the Seawolves took the field against Richmond and quarterback Michael Strauss, who entered as the leading passer in the Colonial Athletic Association, averaging 296.7 yards per game, Priore and defensive coordinator Lyle Hemphill understood they were playing with a short deck.
Starting free safety Naim Cheeseboro (shoulder) and rover back Max Martinez (groin) were ruled out of the game, and the plan was not to play cornerback Ivan May (hip flexor) although he suited up. Those injuries led to a game of musical chairs in the secondary.
Zedrick Gardner, who had played only on special teams, started in Cheeseboro’s spot at free safety. The other starting safety, Christian Ricard moved to Martinez’s rover position, a hybrid nickel back and linebacker, and backup safety Derrick Morgan started in Ricard’s spot. The third new starter was freshman Jaheem Woods, who lined up at May’s spot as field cornerback, meaning he covers the wide side of the field.
Near the end of the first half, boundary cornerback Winston Longden, who plays on the short side of the field, got banged up, so, Priore and Hemphill had to send May in for a few plays. Longden was back on the field when the second half began, but he suffered a broken jaw on Richmond’s first drive to knock him out of the game. So, Woods moved to Longden’s field cornerback position, and May, who was at about 65 percent physically by Priore’s estimate, played the rest of the game at field corner.
Although the Seawolves had some freshman cornerbacks available, they are redshirting while learning the system to preserve four full seasons of eligibility for the future. Playing one of them would have burned a year of eligibility in the ninth game of the season.
"You go into the week, and three guys are playing different positions than they normally play," Priore said. "You have limited backups. When you try to 'personnel' them, you don’t have answers you normally have. So, you scale it down because you have guys playing different positions. You don’t have your whole arsenal available to you."
In other words, Stony Brook couldn’t run the more complex defenses it might have at the end of the game if it had experienced front-line players. The Seawolves had to play Strauss more straight up. They succeeded for a while as SBU built a 28-18 third-quarter lead, but then, Strauss carved them up, throwing the last three of his five touchdown passes while totaling 360 passing yards and 11 passing third-down conversions.
"I’m proud of our defensive effort," Priore said. "I congratulate their quarterback for having a good game, but the game was within reach with three minutes to go."
Because of the defensive injuries, the Seawolves knew the offense would have to put significant points on the board, which it did with running back James Kenner leading the way with 136 yards rushing and three touchdowns. But in the third quarter, wide receiver Jahrie Level, who was replacing injured starter Malcolm Eugene and doing a good job, suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. Priore had to call on walk-on receivers to play.
Then, when the Seawolves were trying to build on a 28-25 lead, third-year starting center Mike Lisi suffered a sprained posterior cruciate ligament that knocked him from the game. Right tackle Cody Precht moved to center, where he had practiced, and sophomore Karim Mohamed entered at Precht’s tackle spot. SBU drove to a first down at the Richmond 15, but the Seawolves stalled. Two Kenner carries moved the ball to the 13, and then a run around the left side that appeared as if Priore was positioning the ball for a field goal resulted in a two-yard loss.
"I’ll tell you we tried to score," Priore said. "I wasn’t positioning for a field goal."
Graham Ball’s 32-yard field goal gave Stony Brook a 31-25 lead with 13:36 left to play. That was the end of the line for the Seawolves. They were out of gas and out of answers on both sides of the ball as Strauss led Richmond’s comeback.
Under circumstances defined by all the injuries, Priore liked what he saw from his beat-up Seawolves (3-6, 1-5 CAA). "It’s the mark of a team that has potential, a team that cares, that works hard during the week, that understands the gameplan," Priore said of the effort and the production. “It’s just not good enough at this point to win the game.
"But when you talk about all of the things you want as a coach -- getting behind, taking the lead, guys playing different positions and working hard -- basically, what I’m saying is I’m proud of what we did. And we’re going to get up off the floor and have fun on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and go have a game next week. That’s what we do."