Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stony Brook's big test: Big East's South Florida

Steve Marcus (Newsday)

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SBU, the lone FCS team left on Long Island, goes primetime this year with a game against Big East team

South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels said he knows all about Stony Brook University football and its location on Long Island as his Big East team prepares to host the Seawolves - who are playing their first game against an FBS (I-A) opponent.

"Sure I've heard of them,'' Daniels said. "My dad is from Buffalo.''

That keynotes Stony Brook's foray into big-time football. Unknown, but undaunted, Stony Brook wants this opportunity to step into the spotlight.

"It's an awesome opportunity, win-win,'' SBU running back Brock Jackolski said of Saturday's game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa against a team that has been ranked as high as No. 2 in recent years. "We get there and we stun USF and it's a win. We go there and don't do so well, nothing against us.''

Senior center and co-captain Paul Fenaroli added, "We can't look at them as being D-I. They are humans, just like us.''

Camp has been all about playing the Bulls at the home of the Tampa Bay Bucs, site of Super Bowl XLIII. Capacity is listed at 66,321.

Besides the chance to play in an NFL stadium against a Big East team, Stony Brook will also receive a $350,000 guarantee for the game, according to Bill McGillis, South Florida's executive associate athletic director.

McGillis said he expects a crowd of at least 35,000 for the season opener and the debut of new coach Skip Holtz. Stony Brook has been engaging in, well, Bulls sessions as part of its preparation. "It's mentioned more than once a day,'' Jackolski said. "If not 10 times a day.''

Coach Chuck Priore is revving up his players. "You've got an opportunity to play in front of more people than you'll play when you add up your entire career,'' he said. "They [USF] certainly have more to lose by not having a great performance than we do. It should have no factor on the rest of our season.''

Stephen Schwicke, the senior linebacker from Bellport, can't wait, saying "I don't think anyone on this team is intimidated at all. If anything, we're welcoming the challenge. Growing up we all dreamed of playing in front of huge crowds. The greatest noise would be to hear the silence of that crowd if we are out there making plays.

"We're ready to rock n roll.''

While USF's Daniels may need a geography lesson - Buffalo is about 450 miles from Stony Brook - the Seawolves do not require a history lesson on its opponent. "It is a football town,'' said Stony Brook wide receiver Matt Brevi, who lives in Tampa. "There are a lot of fans and they are crazy. They really get after it.''

But South Florida is also a team with something of an inferiority complex, said Stony Brook linebacker Casey Callahan, also of Tampa. "You think of the big three in Florida as Florida, Florida State and Miami; they [USF] have been knocking on the door. They beat Florida State last year. That was a big win for them.''

Daniels agreed with that, saying, "In a way, we're in the same stages as Stony Brook, trying to make a name for ourselves.''

South Florida started football on the same path as Stony Brook, taking the FCS route in 1997 but then quickly establishing itself in I-A.

The Bulls peaked in 2007 when one poll ranked them second in the nation. They are 95-57 in the sport and have won three bowl games. The New York Giants' No. 1 pick this year was USF's Jason Pierre-Paul.

Last season ended in controversy for USF as coach Jim Leavitt was fired after it was alleged that he struck a player. Holtz, son of former Notre Dame and Jets coach Lou Holtz, replaced him.

USF plays the Florida Gators in 13 days, but Holtz said, "Right now Stony Brook is more important because they are first. I'm not necessarily worrying about them overlooking Stony Brook. Everybody understands how important it is that we get off on the right foot. Stony Brook is not a team you can overlook, they have talent.

"The excitement and energy our players talk about in getting ready for Florida, that's the same excitement and energy Stony Brook has in getting ready for South Florida. They are going to come in and try to make a statement, try and win.''

Daniels added, "It's not necessarily who you are playing, it doesn't matter. Everybody is under scholarship. We can never overlook anybody.''

Jim Fiore, Stony Brook's athletic director, sees this game as a natural progression of the program's growth. It was conceived three seasons ago between Fiore and McGillis. The two have been friends for years. The timing seems perfect. Stony Brook shared the Big South title last season - culminating a decades-long transition from club football to non-scholarship to full scholarship in a state-of-the-art stadium - and is expected to vie for the championship again this season.

"Stony Brook will have very little name recognition in Tampa,'' McGillis said, "but I will be spreading the word about what Chuck and Jim have done there. I fully expect they will be a program that plays in the FCS playoffs.''

Fiore has always shot for the moon in his planning for all of the university's teams. Most of his visions are becoming reality. "My job is not to set us up for the next two years, but for 20 to 40 years,'' the 41-year old Fiore said. "We're not dropping football, not reducing scholarships, not downgrading our athletic program. We have a large vision for athletics.''

To wit, he is talking about playing Army and Boston College in the next few seasons. "Army gives us a great brand and Boston College, another great brand and ACC school at Chestnut Hill. I think we are out of puberty, into adulthood. We have an identity now.''

Where might all this lead? Fiore foresees other opponents from the Big East, SEC and ACC. "Maybe play it at Yankee Stadium or Citi Field,'' he said. There's also talk about expanding SBU's LaValle Stadium beyond its current capacity of 8,136.

Fiore isn't quite talking about inviting Michigan, but said, "Look at where we were, look at where we are. We're not stopping.''