Stony Brook opens its 2015 football season Thursday night by moving up to the FBS level and diving into the deep end at Toledo, which is the preseason favorite to win the tough Mid-American Conference. In a similar spot last year, New Hampshire suffered a 54-20 loss before going undefeated in Colonial Athletic Association play and reaching FCS semifinals.
"The good part is your kids really get excited for that game," Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore said. "It's their opportunity to showcase their talents on that level. Toledo is a perennially successful program in the MAC."
Toledo went 9-4, including a wild 63-44 win over Arkansas State in the GoDaddy Bowl. The Rockets return quarterback Phillip Ely, a veteran corps of wide receivers led by Corey Jones, and All-MAC running back Kareem Hunt, who rushed for 1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns, including 271 yards in the bowl win.
Stony Brook returns eight starters from last year's 5-7 team, including preseason All-American defensive end Victor Ochi and All-CAA safety Naim Cheeseboro, from a defense that was among the best in FCS. But slowing down the Rockets is a huge challenge. "The speed they play on offense, they are trying to snap the ball as quick as they can," Priore said. "They're very efficient, and they are laden with skilled athletes all over the field."
Ochi, who is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, said he believes the Seawolves defense can surpass last year's performance. "In all honesty, I feel like we underachieved last year," Ochi said. "We definitely lost some key starters in [defensive backs] Christian Ricard and Davonte Anderson.
"But the guys we have now can really take it to the next level. We were close in a lot of games and made mistakes last year. We can be way better."
Priore figures the Seawolves are far ahead of last season offensively simply because Conor Bednarski is an established starter who went 4-4 after winning the job. "We're excited about Conor Bednarski being back," Priore said. "He's a guy who can really lead our offense, get us in and out of the right plays, create things with his feet, make the throws and keep us out of mistakes. He's really taken charge."
The running game features returning 1,000-yard rusher Stacey Bedell, but Priore is especially excited about the depth freshmen Isaiah White and Travis Liburd and sophomore Donald Liotine provide. "We're very deep at tailback," Priore said. "We'll be able to play Stacey, get him his carries, get big plays from him but get him some time on the sidelines with other guys being able to take reps."
The Seawolves came close against last year's FBS opponent in a three-point loss at Connecticut, but Toledo is far tougher. "We always love to play that 'up' game and challenge them," Priore said. "We certainly won't back down."