When this season began, the goal for Stony Brook's football team was crystal clear -- try to win the Football Championship Subdivision national title. With Iowa transfer Marcus Coker joining Miguel Maysonet in the backfield, all things seemed possible.
But for the past two weeks, the best football season in Stony Brook history was dangerously close to going off the tracks.
First, the Seawolves lost at Liberty, which ultimately cost them the Big South's automatic tournament bid. Then, after they received an at-large bid a week ago, it became clear that quarterback Kyle Essington would be unable to play against first-round opponent Villanova because of a deep thigh bruise.
But with backup quarterback Lyle Negron turning and handing off to Maysonet and Coker and a physical defense holding the Wildcats to a season-low in points Saturday, Stony Brook is right where it hoped to be after a 20-10 first-round victory at LaValle Stadium. Now the Seawolves (10-2) have a date with second-seeded Montana State (10-1) on Saturday in Bozeman.
Beaming coach Chuck Priore reached the postgame news conference and asked athletic director Jim Fiore, "Can you get a dome built for Montana?"
Yeah, it's going to be cold, colder even than Saturday's wind-whipped game against Villanova. But if the Seawolves can play as close to error-free as they did against the Wildcats (8-4), not even the second seed is safe.
"This team had a long two weeks," Priore said of all the uncertainty. "They didn't know what would happen. But they handled it well from the shoulders up . . . When they got the opportunity, there was no doubt we were going to play well based on last Sunday's excitement."
Knowing they were without their starting quarterback, the Seawolves were on point on both sides of the ball.
Coker and Maysonet set the tone, pounding Villanova's defense on their opening 21-play, 98-yard touchdown drive, which lasted 12:43 and was capped by Maysonet's 1-yard run 43 seconds into the second quarter. Priore said he'd never had a 21-play drive before, and it's a good bet it was the first time his opening possession ended in the second quarter.
By halftime, the Seawolves had a 14-0 lead on Maysonet's 14-yard touchdown run, but Villanova coach Andy Talley said it felt more like 28-0 because of the time of possession. SBU wound up holding the ball for 39 minutes and 32 seconds, including 12:00 in the first quarter and 12:42 in the third.
"They did what they had to do," Talley said. "We didn't have enough offense to threaten them. You have to stress them and get them to come from behind. They could have beat Syracuse with a couple breaks. They beat Army. Essington didn't play, but the new guy managed the game.
"They're a very good team. They're going to give scares to some teams in their run for the national title. I look forward to having them in the CAA."
As coach of the 2009 FCS national champion, Talley knows what it takes. He praised an SBU defense that held the Wildcats to 271 yards just by playing its base defense, and he said Maysonet (160 yards, 25 carries) and Coker (107 yards, 29 carries) are the best running back combination he's seen this season.
"They're built now to be an upper-level CAA team," Talley said of the Seawolves' conference change next season. "They have the package on both sides of the ball right now. People are going to pull their hair out playing them."
Most counted it a roaring success last year when Stony Brook reached the second round of the FCS playoffs before losing at then-No. 1 Sam Houston State, 34-27. But the Seawolves want more now.
Negron will get most of the snaps in practice, but Priore said Essington might play at Montana State if treatment goes well this week.
"Last year, we experienced the second round," Priore said. "Everybody looks at it as a positive, but to our program, it was a loss. Our plans are to finish what we do in the next round of the playoffs, go out there, be successful and bring home something different than last year."