SOUTH KINGSTOWN - Alumni and former players who returned to the University of Rhode Island for Homecoming on Saturday might have been bracing for something different.
Tight games have often gone the way of the opposition over the years. Stony Brook represented particularly tough opposition, carrying a perfect all-time record against URI into Saturday’s matchup.
But on a perfect fall afternoon, in front of a sellout crowd of 5,778, the Rams continued to hammer home the point that things are a little different now.
URI rode out the ups and downs of a back-and-forth game for a 27-20 overtime victory at Meade Stadium, winning on a fourth-down stop in the extra session. The win puts the Rams at 4-0, their best start since 2001.
“For some of the older guys, there were times when we would lose when the going got hard,” said defensive lineman James Makszin. “So now, we take pride in ourselves in being able to finish the game. When it’s time to step up and play football to win the game, that’s what we do.”
Stony Brook gave URI one of many doses of heartbreak in the 2019 season, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left. The Rams finished 2-10 that season but have been rewriting their story ever since. They won two overtime games in the 2020 spring season and have prevailed in a pair of one-score games in Colonial Athletic Association play this season. Ranked No. 21 in this week’s STATS FCS Top 25, the Rams will likely be moving up ahead of a marquee matchup with No. 9 Delaware next Saturday at Meade Stadium.
“We’re hungry. We want it so bad,” said junior tight end Caleb Warren. “This is it - this team right here. Every day, we’re hungry. We trust each other a lot and our coaches are amazing.”
URI broke out of a 13-13 tie in the fourth quarter with a touchdown run by Kasim Hill, but Stony Brook answered to tie the score again. The teams traded stops down the stretch. In the final minute, URI moved into Stony Brook territory, but took a relatively conservative approach, opting for a 51-yard field goal try as time expired. C.J. Carrick’s kick had the distance but went wide right.
Hill hit Caleb Warren for a 27-yard touchdown on the second play of overtime. Carrick’s extra point made it 27-20.
“We ran that play six or seven times during the game,” Warren said. “Not that it wasn’t there, but it wasn’t being completed. Thankfully, Kasim still trusted me. We repped it so many times in practice this week. He kept trusting me and I trusted him. It was there.”
Aiming to match the Rams, Stony Brook moved deep inside the red zone and had third-and-1 at the URI 2-yard line. Westley Neal Jr. stopped Ty Son Lawton for no gain on the third down play.
On fourth down, the URI defense overwhelmed the Stony Brook offensive line, with a host of Rams crashing into the backfield. Makszin and Jarrett Martin converged to bring down Lawton for no gain, ending the game on the spot.
“We’ve struggled a lot on fourth down,” Martin said. “This week in practice, we kept telling each other, ‘We’ve got to stop them on fourth downs, especially in the red zone and the goal line area. We’ve got to convert and show up.’ That’s exactly what happened. We had a lot of heart, a lot of trust in each other. We showed up and got the stop.”
“We always talk about winning the game on fourth and 1 and that’s exactly what happened,” Fleming said. “We knocked them backwards. That’s technique, it’s fundamentals but it’s also heart. That’s what these kids have got.”
Before the dramatic finish, the story for URI wasn’t so much big successes, but an ability to fight through the pitfalls that have often proved costly in the recent past. Key penalties, near-misses on potential big plays, tough sledding on offense - none of it mattered in the end.
“The piece is, if you want to go way back, you start thinking about COVID and a year gone. You start thinking about the appreciation that was learned to have the opportunity to play the game. It was no small feat,” Fleming said. “We’re coming out in the spring and playing in front of nobody, just each other. Couldn’t have been a more pure football thing. And then it carries on - good practice, good training, hard-working people. And it comes down to a game where there’s a belief to win. There’s not a whole bunch different. Go into a game, could have closed it out in a couple of times - didn’t make the play. No flinch in these cats. They just go ahead and play the next one.”
Rhode Island totaled just 57 yards of offense in the first quarter, punting on each of its first four possessions. Stony Brook met similar roadblocks but busted through first, getting its trademark run game in gear with a 63-yard scoring drive late in the quarter, all of the yards coming on the ground. Lawton scored from 30 yards out for the 7-0 lead.
URI punted twice more before getting a spark from its defense when Jordan Jones intercepted a deep pass. The Rams got their own ground game moving and marched 88 yards for the game-tying score. A 40-yard run by quarterback Hill set up a 10-yard touchdown run by Justice Antrum.
The Rams went to halftime with the lead thanks to a defensive stop and a field goal. Carrick was good from 42 yards with 15 seconds left before the break, putting the Rams in front 10-7.
Stony Brook went back in front with a strong drive to open the second half, capped by a Tyquell Fields touchdown run. A missed PAT kept the score at 13-10, and URI tied it soon after on a Carrick field goal.
The Rams’ longest drive of the game put them in front early in the fourth quarter. Pinned at their own 6, the Rams got long passes from Hill to Caleb Warren and Paul Holmes to move into Stony Brook territory. A holding penalty on the Seawolves gave URI a key first down, on what would have been fourth down instead. Hill raced to the corner of the end zone for a score that made it 20-13.
The Seawolves answered with a 73-yard march, aided by a pass interference flag on the Rams. Fields scrambled into the end zone on fourth down and Mike Boyle’s extra point tied the game.
Carrick missed a 45-yard field goal at the four-minute mark, but the Rams followed with a crucial defensive stop, getting a three-and-out from Stony Brook. That would be the Seawolves’ final possession until overtime, with URI never giving them a chance for late heroics.
“It’s been seven years that these guys have gotten us,” Fleming said. “This was the best game we played against them. They’re holding onto their pride and their life and they battled. You look at many things that you’d like to do better over the course of the game, particularly in the first half offensively. But at the same time, what is characteristic of good football teams is they find a way to win. Still plenty of things to improve on, but that’s a good locker room in there. That’s an incredible group of young men.”
And the Rams will try to keep the ride going.
“It definitely feels good but then it’s like, ‘We can’t eat the cheese,’” Makszin said. “Coach [Donnie Smith] puts it up on the board every day - don’t eat the cheese. Don’t believe the hype. It’s good we won. Twenty-four hour rule. Next week we’re going on to Delaware.”