HEATHER KHALIFA
Stony Brook, pictured above last season, is 1-6 all-time against FBS teams heading into its season opener against Toledo. HEATHER KHALIFA/THE STATESMAN

At long last, football season is right around the corner.

Stony Brook opens up its season on Thursday night in a road contest against the University of Toledo Rockets. The Seawolves will face longshot odds against the Rockets, an FBS team who went 7-1 in the Mid American Conference last year and won the GoDaddy.com Bowl against Arkansas State.

“Our top goal every game is to be successful on the scoreboard,” Seawolves head coach Chuck Priore said. “But you know with the reality of the situation, we want to play well as a team. We want to be in the game in the 4th quarter. If you’re in the game in the 4th quarter, anyone can win.”

Being close in the fourth quarter could prove to be a tough task for the Seawolves. Stony Brook is 26.5-point underdogs against Toledo according to Vegasinsider.com, and is 1-6 all-time against FBS teams. Last season, the Rockets opened up against eventual Colonial Athletic Association champion New Hampshire and won 54-20.

The Rockets ranked 15th in the FBS last season in total offense, ahead of national powerhouses like Auburn, Alabama and Wisconsin. Toledo’s biggest offensive strength is a stellar backfield, which is typically led by junior running back Kareem Hunt. However, Hunt is suspended for the season’s first two games for an unspecified violation of team rules, so sophomore Terry Swanson will likely take most of the carries his absence. Swanson rushed for 732 yards on 113 carries last year, so the Rockets still have plenty of skill at this position even without Hunt.

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“They play with speed on offense,” Priore said of Toledo. “They snap the ball as quick as they can and they have some skilled athletes all over the field.”

In order to stop this offensive attack, the Seawolves will need to rely on their defense. Stony Brook had the sixth-best defense in the 125-team FCS last year, so this is undoubtedly the team’s biggest strength going into the season. The team has two preseason All-CAA selections in senior defensive lineman Victor Ochi and senior cornerback Naim Cheeseboro, so there is plenty of star power.

This will also be the first game that Cheeseboro will call signals on defense. Former defensive back Christian Ricard did this very well last season, so “Cheese” has big shoes to fill. But Priore believes that his experience will make him a solid defensive leader.  

“Cheese[boro] is a terrific player,” Priore said of the cornerback. “He’ll get us lined up, and we expect him to make the plays needed and be the guy we look to on defense.”

On the offensive side of things, Priore always tends towards a ground-and-pound approach, so junior running back Stacey Bedell looks to get plenty of touches. He rushed for 1,070 yards in 11 games last season, and was the team’s most electrifying player on offense.

“Stacey put on about 15 pounds of muscle this offseason,” Priore said. “He’s in great shape, he’s physically healthy, he’s playing real fast so we will expect a lot of him.”

Bedell possibly has the toughest matchup of his Stony Brook career on Thursday when he faces a Toledo run defense that ranked 14th in the FBS last season. If the Rockets neutralize the Seawolves’ ground game, Stony Brook could look to take advantage of a weak Toledo secondary. The Rockets had the third-worst passing defense in the FBS last season, allowing 291.7 passing yards per game.

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Senior quarterback Conor Bednarski will start his first season opener at Stony Brook. He started the final eight games of last season and went 4-4, completing 52.9 percent of his passes for 1,327 yards to go along with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. While far from dominant, Priore has sang his praises throughout camp, especially touting the senior’s leadership skills.

“I think you’ll see a guy who can lead our offense,” Priore said of Bednarski. “You need a guy in charge who commands respect in the huddle and I think everybody respects Conor. He’s a 3.8 student and a terrific kid.”

If Stony Brook were to win this game, it would be deserving of national headlines. It would potentially be college football’s upset of the year and arguably the biggest win in Seawolves football history. Even if Stony Brook does not win, beating the spread could suffice as a moral victory ahead of the Seawolves’ CAA schedule.

The game will be aired at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com.

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