Stony Brook hoping to ride Hail Mary momentum vs. Lehigh

(STATS) – Stony Brook was almost certainly headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 even if Joe Carbone’s prayer hadn’t been answered in Orono, Maine.

But the 10th-ranked Seawolves are feeling a lot better about themselves since it was.

After completing a fourth-quarter comeback with a Hail Mary as time expired, Stony Brook will hope things aren’t nearly as difficult Saturday as they open the playoffs with a visit from Lehigh, the lone team to make the playoffs with a losing record.

The Seawolves (9-2) had been just about the definition of mediocrity since arriving in the Colonial Athletic Association in 2013, winning five games in each of the last four seasons. But they made it to five by mid-October in 2017 with a 38-24 victory over New Hampshire and enter the playoffs having won five straight, the last of which was easily the most memorable.

Down 19-7 in the fourth quarter at Maine last Saturday, Stony Brook pulled within five on a Donavin Washington 11-yard touchdown from Carbone with 10:46 left, but wasn’t any closer when it got the ball back with 31 seconds left at its own 27. Carbone led a drive to the Black Bears’ 35 and had time for one final heave. Harrison Jackson went up and outreached multiple defenders to haul in his Hail Mary as the clock hit zero.

“Games are won as complete games,” Seawolves coach Chuck Priore said. “You always tell the kids to play to the last tick of the clock and literally that happened (Saturday). It is a lesson to learn. We played to the last tick and we got it done.”

Falling to a mediocre Maine team would have been the closest thing Stony Brook had to a bad loss. Priore’s team was tied with FBS No. 22 South Florida in the fourth quarter in its opener before falling 31-17 and went 7-1 in the rough-and-tumble CAA, only losing 24-20 to Delaware.

The Seawolves did catch a big break in their conference schedule, though. They didn’t face either reigning national champion and unanimous No. 1 James Madison or 15th-ranked Elon.

Beat Lehigh (5-6), though, and that will change. The Dukes await the winner in the second round next weekend, when they’ll put their Division I-best 23-game winning streak on the line.

Their opponent might have a losing record, but the Mountain Hawks have much more recent playoff experience than Stony Brook. They brought a nine-game winning streak into New Hampshire in the first round last season but were blown out 64-21 by the Wildcats, another CAA team.

This postseason appearance seemed extremely unlikely in October after an 0-5 start and was still very much in jeopardy at halftime last Saturday. Needing a win over rival Lafayette to earn the Patriot League’s automatic bid over Colgate, Lehigh trailed by 10 midway through the third quarter.

Just as they did halfway through the season, the Mountain Hawks rallied. Dom Bragalone scored one of his FCS-leading 18 rushing touchdowns and Brad Mayes threw two more, giving Lehigh a 38-31 win and the conference crown.

An underdog much of the season, Lehigh is a 19 1/2-point underdog heading to Long Island.

“Not many people outside our locker room are going to give us a shot,” offensive lineman Brandon Short said. “Playing a CAA team will be a challenge. We understand it’s a great conference. Stony Brook’s strength is its defense. That’s all we know.”

Short’s assessment is correct. Stony Brook is one of five teams (Jacksonville State, James Madison, North Carolina A&T, North Dakota State) to allow 3.0 yards or fewer per carry and 6.0 yards or fewer per pass attempt.

But Carbone, while rarely someone who will carry the Seawolves with his arm, is extremely efficient. He threw 20 touchdown passes and just one interception against FCS competition.

It’s a wild reversal from his sophomore season, when Carbone through three touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He’s developed quite a rapport with senior wideout Ray Bolden, who has caught 38 percent of Carbone’s passes (66 receptions) for 780 yards with nine TDs. But Bolden has battled injuries throughout the season and left the win at Maine with an ankle injury.

If Bolden is limited or can’t go, that might give Lehigh just the opening it’s looking for.

“Last year was the first playoff experience for a lot of guys,” Short said. “Now the veteran guys know better what it takes to win a game in the playoffs against a good team.”

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