It was halftime of the biggest football game in Stony Brook history, and the Seawolves led Liberty by three points in the kind of game that went back and forth like a tennis match. It seemed vital to score on every drive just to hold serve.
Replaying his halftime speech to coaches and players, Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore said he told everyone to stay the course. "Call the same defenses, call the same offensive plays, keep kicking to No. 3,'' Priore said later, referring to explosive Flames kickoff returner Kevin Fogg. "At the end of the day, they're going to make more mistakes than us. They're a good team, but they threw a pick in the red zone, and they fumbled twice in the fourth quarter.''
Priore nailed his prognostication, and the Seawolves nailed down the Big South Conference title and the school's first-ever Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoff berth in a 41-31 victory over Liberty that ended with many of the 7,896 fans flooding the field Saturday night at LaValle Stadium. Stony Brook will learn the identity of its playoff opponent on the selection show at 10 o'clock Sunday morning on ESPNU.
Stony Brook tied for the conference title the previous two seasons, and running back Brock Jackolski said, "It's awesome to bring the championship to Stony Brook, and to outright win it is a statement for the institution.''
The victory was the eighth straight for the Seawolves (8-3, 6-0 Big South) and sweet revenge against the Flames (7-4, 5-1), who were ranked 16th in the FCS coaches' poll and beat SBU, 54-28, last season.
Miguel Maysonet (158 yards on 25 carries) and Jackolski (121 yards on 18 carries) totaled 279 yards after being held to 59 yards rushing between them by Liberty a year ago. Kyle Essington showed the Seawolves have a deep passing game, completing 14 of 20 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns.
Both offenses were close to unstoppable in the first half, except that Liberty quarterback Mike Brown was picked off by linebacker Craig Richardson at the SBU 2 in the first quarter. Brown completed 23 of 36 passes for 361 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to Aldreakis Allen that gave the Flames a 21-17 lead. Flames wideout Chris Summers caught 10 balls for 240 yards.
But after Liberty took the lead, Stony Brook came back with a two-play drive that ended with a 49-yard TD pass from Essington to wide-open Matt Brevi down the left sideline for a 24-21 halftime lead. "They were running a certain coverage, and the coaches saw it and took advantage of it,'' Essington said.
In the second half, Liberty tied Stony Brook at 24 and again at 31 and was driving at the Seawolves' 24 when Jawara Dudley sacked Brown and Grant Nakwaasah forced a fumble that he recovered. Kevin Norrell dropped a first-down pass, but on third-and-10, he caught a 15-yarder over the middle to jump-start a 68-yard drive capped by Maysonet's 1-yard touchdown run. "I had to make up for the drop,'' Norrell said. "The linebacker was there, but Kyle threw it and I knew where the first down was.''
When Liberty got the ball back, Brown fumbled again when safety Dominick Reyes stripped the ball and recovered at the Liberty 30, leading to a clinching 18-yard field goal by Wes Skiffington. "We knew it was going to be a barnburner,'' Reyes said. "We said we'll make the big plays when they come to us . . . I hit him, and the ball went straight into my lap.''
Now Stony Brook heads into the playoffs with a full head of steam. "When we're playing together,'' Essington said, "I think we're better than any I-AA team out there.''