After each loss, it seems Stony Brook's No. 1-ranked total defense has a story to tell about the big one that got away. The Seawolves have a defense that surely is among the best in FCS football, but they have a flaw that has proven fatal to their 1-4 record.
In all four losses, SBU has given up one or two backbreaking touchdown plays ranging from 30 to 68 yards. It happened again in a 27-21 overtime loss to William & Mary on Saturday night at LaValle Stadium, effectively killing the buzz for a record homecoming crowd of 11,301.
By all rights, Stony Brook had its Colonial Athletic Association opener filed in the win column when running back Stacey Bedell broke a 33-yard touchdown run for a 21-14 lead with 1:12 left in regulation. But a miscommunication in the Seawolves' secondary led to a 52-yard scoring pass with 25 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime.
It wasn't an aberration; it was evidence of a trend.
In the season-opening 13-7 loss to Bryant, Stony Brook was beaten by a 37-yard TD pass in a fourth-and-9 situation. At Connecticut, the Seawolves' defense gave up a 30-yard TD pass, and the special teams threw in a 72-yard punt return TD in a 19-16 loss. Following SBU's lone win over Division II American International, it traveled to North Dakota for a 13-3 loss in which the defense gave up a 68-yard scoring pass after quarterback John Kinder had thrown an interception that was returned 92 yards for a TD.
William & Mary (4-1) came in Saturday ranked 12th and 13th in the FCS polls but was contained until the tying touchdown at the end of regulation. It was all the more shocking because Stony Brook's defense threw the Tribe for a loss on 16 plays, including six quarterback sacks. But with a chance to put the game away, the Seawolves couldn't close the deal.
Safety Naim Cheeseboro said there was a miscommunication in the secondary and he took the blame for missing a tackle on receiver Sean Ballard, who caught a quick sideline pass and went 52 yards to tie the game at 21. Just a few minutes earlier, Stony Brook had thrown the Tribe for three straight losses totaling 15 yards, forcing a punt that set up Bedell's go-ahead TD.
An ineffective offense has put immense pressure on Stony Brook's defense all season, and the Seawolves' defenders were on the field for more than 35 minutes in regulation against William & Mary.
Linebacker Jamie Leggiero, who had seven tackles against the Tribe, including two for losses, said the fourth-quarter series that produced a 15-yard Tribe loss was an example of how the Seawolves have focused on executing their defensive fundamentals. But he added: "We didn't really stick to that in the fourth quarter. We started getting tired a little bit. It came back and hurt us."
Asked if the demand for near-perfection to support a struggling offense might make the Seawolves prone to major breakdowns that are magnified in close games, Leggiero said: "It is a lot of pressure, but our defense is good. We're going to push through that and learn from our mistakes."
With sharper play in those clutch situations, Stony Brook could be 5-0 now. Instead the Seawolves must win their final seven games to meet the eligibility standard for the FCS playoffs of seven Division I wins. That is an extreme long shot, but coach Chuck Priore expressed confidence.
"This team has the correct attitude," Priore said. "It's a great locker room. We'll rely on our ability to be disciplined in life, and we'll bring it to the field. The things that separate winning and losing you have no control of after it's done. We will move forward."