The difference between Stony Brook's mediocre 7-9 record in its first two years in the Colonial Athletic Association compared to the greatness of the previous two FCS playoff seasons in the Big South came down to a matter of four minutes and 46 seconds, the way coach Chuck Priore figures it. In seven of those nine CAA losses, the Seawolves were winning or tied with an average of 4:46 remaining.
That simple equation gave rise to Priore's theme for the 2015 season, which opens Thursday night with a road game against tough FBS opponent Toledo of the Mid-American Conference -- "finish." During offseason training, the importance of that final 4:46 was drummed into the minds of all the Seawolves.
"We put it on their T-shirts, put it on the scoreboard in spring practices, we did drills with 4:46 to go in the game," Priore said. "How are we going to finish this game? We did grueling exercises in the weight room for 4 minutes and 46 seconds and ingrained in their minds how to finish . . . You over-challenge them and are trying to see if they can fight through the adversity. I think these guys bought into it."
Focusing on two of the more painful memories from SBU's 5-7 season in 2014, Priore recalled the 52-yard touchdown pass William & Mary completed with 25 seconds left in regulation before an overtime win and the tying extra point Stony Brook missed with 3:22 left in a loss at New Hampshire. Had the Seawolves won those two games for a 6-2 CAA record, they likely would have returned to the FCS playoffs.
"I do believe, at the end of the day, it's about confidence," Priore said. "I'm not so sure the last two teams had the confidence they could be successful for various reasons. I see this team being very different. We've had two full recruiting classes and part of a third since we've been in the CAA, so the talent level is a little higher. That's the equalizer."
A dominant defense that allowed only 15.3 points per game last season returns eight regular starters, including defensive end Victor Ochi, an FCS preseason second-team All-American, and free safety Naim Cheeseboro, a preseason all-CAA selection along with Ochi. Priore looks to Cheeseboro to lead the secondary after the loss of rover back Christian Ricard and cornerback Davonte Anderson.
"He's prepared to do it," Priore said of Cheeseboro. "When he was not injured with his shoulder, he was our best football player."
The offense struggled to score last year, but quarterback Conor Bednarski, who started the final eight games, leading running back Stacey Bedell (1,070 yards rushing) and sophomore wide receiver Donavin Washington (29 catches, 332 yards) return. Freshman running backs Isaiah White and Travis Liburd might make an immediate impact along with junior college transfer Ray Bolden at wide receiver.
An improved offense could turn the Seawolves into a CAA contender, but the fourth quarter will tell the story.
"We put 4:46 on our back over the winter," Cheeseboro said. "We've got to finish, finish, finish. That 4:46 is going to be zero because we have to finish."