With nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, the defensive gridlock showed no signs of bursting. Stony Brook’s previous six drives ended in the same unremarkable fashion: with a punt. Looking to preserve its delicate 9-7 lead, No. 19 North Dakota was set to make it seven as both the Fighting Hawks and Seawolves struggled to piece together scoring drives. Points were sparse; one timely play could prove all the difference.
Redshirt freshman defensive back Gavin Heslop made that difference when he blocked the ensuing punt at the 7-yard line. Fellow defensive back, senior Kye Morgan, promptly recovered the ball for a go-ahead touchdown, solidifying a 13-9 Stony Brook lead that would stand as the final score to Thursday night’s season opener at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium.
“The guys on the shield weren’t pointing me out,” Heslop said. “So I knew if I got a good jump on the ball, I would get an easy block. And that’s what happened.”
“Thank you God,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Joe Carbone exclaimed in relief.
With North Dakota producing a top-five FCS run defense last season, head coach Chuck Priore had expected a tight, low-scoring contest. And this showed in his play-calling. Looking for a big-play game changer, Carbone hurled multiple prayers deep downfield, a few of which almost connected. But with a suffocated running game, which only tallied 62 yards on 34 attempts — an average of 1.8 yards per attempt — the Seawolves struggled to spread the field.
“Our goal was to hit those big plays,” Priore said. “We knew there would be negative plays. They come after you in the pass.”
Stony Brook’s defense set a stifling tone, allowing a mere 177 yards of total offense, causing two fumbles and recording four sacks.
Senior defensive back Jaheem Woods was a particularly bright spot with a career-high three sacks, five tackles for a loss and eleven total tackles. He also forced a fumble. Junior defensive back Tyrice Beverette added nine tackles of his own, including a 9-yard sack late in the second quarter.
“Coach actually made an adjustment,” Woods said. “He saw they were singling Ty out after he got his sack. He said I was going to have one-on-one with back and he just said ‘Have at it.’”
After a series of completed passes and a 24-yard sweep rush from junior wide receiver Sherman Alston Jr., Stony Brook was in field goal range to cap off their beginning drive of the game. Senior kicker Przemyslaw Popek sent the attempt wide left and from then on, both defenses asserted their dominance.
The first quarter would go scoreless, with the teams going a combined 0-for-6 in third down conversions as offense was suffocated.
Beverette, who recovered from two knee injuries, had a near pick-six after jumping a gap in front of North Dakota’s end zone, forcing a punt. The Seawolves failed to capitalize on excellent field position, as sophomore Boston College transfer Jordan Gowins fumbled while facing a stacked line on a third-and-one carry up the middle.
The Fighting Hawks finally broke the scoring drought early in the second quarter via a 16-yard run from unanimous preseason All-Big Sky running back, sophomore John Santiago.
After trading turnovers, the Seawolves responded with a touchdown run of their own. Facing a third-and-goal, Gowins split left, only to fumble on the two-yard line and have the ball dived on and covered in the end zone by his teammate, redshirt sophomore tight end Cal Daniels, to establish a 7-7 tie.
In the third quarter, North Dakota junior quarterback Keaton Studsrud connected with senior wide receiver Clive Georges. Stony Brook’s defensive back jumped the ball, attempting an interception, which gave Georges daylight to run. While diving for the endzone, Georges was clocked by junior defensive back Chris Cooper, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Beverette.
Georges lay on the field, incapable of standing up on his own accord. Following minutes of pause, Georges offered the crowd a thumbs up as his gurney was lifted into the ambulance with an apparent lower-body injury.
With the ambulance yet to drive away and Georges spectating from inside, North Dakota junior defensive back Cole Reyes forced a safety, putting his team ahead 9-7. Reyes — the Fighting Hawk’s most disrupting force of the contest — would end the night with eight tackles, two tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and one sack.
Carbone, who swallowed his fair share of lumps after winning the starting role midway through his freshman season, looked considerably more poised in the pocket. Going 16-for-32 with 159 yards, the Connecticut native had no interceptions while facing constant pressure from a North Dakota defense that sent a flurry of blitzes throughout the game, culminating in four sacks.
“They played a great game” Carbone said of North Dakota’s defense. “They bring a lot of pressure and they were stopping the run, so they were making us throw. But the defensive came up huge like always and the special teams came up with the play.”
Stony Brook heads to Lincoln Financial Field to take on the Temple Owls on Saturday, Sept. 10 for both team’s second matchup of the season.