DURHAM, N.H. - For the second straight season, coach Chuck Priore’s Stony Brook football team will miss the FCS playoffs. That much was assured by an agonizing 28-20 Colonial Athletic Association loss at No. 3/5 New Hampshire on Saturday.
Even if the Seawolves (4-5, 3-2 CAA) sweep their remaining three games to finish high in the conference standings, they will fall short of the required seven Division I wins to qualify for the FCS playoffs because one win came against Division II American International. It’s a shame because Priore’s team has the No. 1 ranked FCS defense and has proven it can play with the big boys.
When this season ends, it will be difficult for Priore and his players not to look back and wonder what might have been had they entered the season with quarterback Conor Bednarski settled as the starter. But Syracuse transfer John Kinder complicated the picture, and the Seawolves muddled through their non-conference schedule at 1-3 record before Priore chose Bednarski.
Even then, they threw away a winnable game against William & Mary in overtime when the defense suffered its most egregious error of the season in allowing a tying 52-yard touchdown pass with 1:12 left in regulation. Erase that mistake, and the Seawolves still would have a sliver of playoff hope.
But now they must regroup during their bye week, find the motivation to finish their second CAA season strong and gear up for home games against James Madison and Rhode Island before the season finale at Albany. Priore consoled himself Saturday with the thought of how far his program has come since its last visit to New Hampshire in 2006 in SBU’s first year of scholarship football.
“The halftime score was 42-0,” Priore said of that 62-7 loss. “This doesn’t feel any different. A loss is a loss. I’m proud of the way we performed, but good teams win these games.”
That’s the bottom line, but in his heart of hearts, Priore knows Saturday’s loss did feel different than the 2006 blowout because these Seawolves had a chance to win, were good enough to win, probably should have won. That has been the case time and again during their first two seasons in the CAA after reaching the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2011-12 while playing in the Big South Conference.
Consider that the coach of the No. 3/5 team in the country, Sean McDonnell, knew he had to take chances to beat Stony Brook’s defense. After coming back from a 14-0 deficit to score two touchdowns, McDonnell ran a trick play for a two-point conversion on the second and a 15-14 halftime lead. Then, with his offense bogged down in the second half, McDonnell ran a fleaflicker with running back Nico Steriti throwing a 73-yard TD pass over the stunned Seawolves. A missed extra point left the Wildcats leading, 21-14.
“It was a helluva call. Against a great defense, you have to make things happen,” McDonnell said. “That’s why we went for two.”
Stony Brook’s offense, which has shown marked improvement, responded with a 31-yard Bednarski TD pass to Adrian Coxson, but a botched extra point kick left the Seawolves trailing, 21-20 with 3:22 to play. That forced the Seawolves to take chances on defense, and they got burned on an all-out blitz when Wildcats running back Jimmy Owens broke up the middle into wide-open space and went 51 yards for the clinching touchdown.
“That was the first all-out blitz they ran,” McDonnell said.
Although New Hampshire quarterback Andy Vailas was effective running, Stony Brook’s defense dominated, sacking Vailas five times, including four by end Victor Ochi. One of his sacks came on a two-man rush as the Seawolves dropped nine into coverage.
“Ochi is as good as there’s been in this league in a long time at rushing the quarterback,” McDonnell said.
That’s high praise from a coach who is headed to the FCS playoffs for the 10th straight season with a 6-1 record, including 4-0 in CAA play. “We found a way to win,” McDonnell said. “It’s hard to tell people how good teams are in this league.”
Stony Brook is one of them, even though the Seawolves won’t have a chance to prove it in the playoffs.