Sooner rather than later, Thomas Ford wants nights like Saturday to be business as usual.
But he knew just as well as anyone who has held an emotional stake in Simon Fraser football over the past five-plus seasons that Canada’s NCAA team was smack dab in the middle of very a special moment.
“Oh, man it was incredible,” the head coach of Clan football said over the phone about 20 minutes after SFU rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat their California hosts, the Azusa Pacific Cougars, in a Great Northwest Athletic Conference game by a 24-17 score.
“Some guys got very emotional, I got emotional,” continued Ford when asked what it was like to address his team after SFU snapped a losing streak against largely NCAA Div. 2 competition dating back to 2014. “But overall, I told our guys that this is just the beginning for us, and that this is a feeling we should be having week in and week out over the next few years.”
Simon Fraser rookie quarterback Brandon Niksich, who went 22-of-32 for 235 yards and three touchdowns, all to senior wide receiver Rysen John (eight catches, 109 yards), was simply incomparable under duress over the second half.
That, the fact that the Clan out-rushed an opponent (116 yards to 64) for the first time in recent memory, and also generated dynamic pressure from its defensive front-seven, were the highlights of a game which ended a losing streak that is hard to put an actual number on.
INSIDE THE MESSY NUMBERS
Last season, in Ford’s first game at the helm, the Div. 2 Clan crushed Oregon’s NCAA Div. 3 Willamette Bearcats by a resounding 54-7 count to snap an overall 33-game losing streak which had begun after its Oct. 18, 2014 win over South Dakota Mines.
Until Saturday, however, SFU had not beaten a fellow NCAA Div. 2 lodge member since that same South Dakota Mines contest, and that made the losing streak against teams at their tier or higher some 48 games and counting.
Since that win in 2014, when current Toronto Argos’ offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine was the head coach, Simon Fraser had lost 35 straight games against Great Northwest Athletic Conference teams, 10 more against non-conference Div. 2 teams, two against NCAA Div. 1 teams, and one to an arguably lower-tiered NAIA team.
Add them all up with the exception of the Div. 3 loss to Willamette and you’ve got 48 straight setbacks.
The bottom line? Any way you want to measure it, its breadth was expansive, easily one of the longest losing streaks in college football.
SIGNS, SIGNS, EVERYWHERE A SIGN
After losing back-to-back road games 51-14 to Western Oregon and 55-21 to Dixie State the past two weeks, it might seem hard to have seen this victory coming.
Yet the young and inexperienced Clan showed for lengthy stretches in both games that the light was starting to come on.
Ford admitted Saturday in the post-game celebration that things have been percolating in a positive way.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “You really saw it. We had a physical game with Dixie, and we were really banged up, but we were getting close, and so to make sure we were as healthy as possible for tonight, we kind of changed things up in practice and that strategy really paid off. I definitely felt that we were the dominant team in the second half.”
A big change?
Trusting that the pure freshman quarterback Niksich could keep his head right where it needed to be in the build-up to Saturday’s game, despite the fact that an injury really took him out of so much of the on-field prep in the run-up to Azusa Pacific.
“He is a little dinged up,” admitted Ford after the win. “He had a shoulder deal and so he didn’t throw a lot of the week in seven-on-seven, but he still got his mental reps.”
It has been an incredible five-game span of maturation for Niksich, who in his first three starts at the collegiate level had a 52.6 per cent completion percentage and threw six interceptions, half of which were taken back to the house.
Over his past two, however, he’s passed at a 64.4 per cent clip (47-of-73) for 562 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
“He’s a baller,” added Ford.”He really did a great job of just continuing to get better. What you saw tonight was him really doing a good job of trusting his protection, getting us in the right places, and making plays down field with his arm. We’ve talked about this before. He is extremely good throwing the deep ball and tonight was no exception.”
Of course getting more than hint of a running game in concert with the pass-catching skills of John, fluid and confident as ever at 6-foot-7, made things lot easier.
“I think in the second half, we ran the football very, very well,” said Ford. “And Rysen John is just an absolute beast. He just took over when we needed to throw the ball.”
Study the box score, and the one statistical comparison that jumps out, is third-down conversion.
Simon Fraser’s offence went 7-for-9 while SFU’s defence held Azusa Pacific to just 2-for-13 on the same set of downs.
And all of that leads to just how incredible Niksich, John and the entire offence was in terms of second-half execution on Saturday.
LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE
Trailing 10-0 at the half, SFU went up 21-10 on three precision drives, ending with Niksich throwing RESPECTIVE touchdown strikes of two, six, and finally 25 yards… all to Rysen John.
Break down the drives, however, and you get an idea of just how dialled in Niksich and his cadre of receivers have become.
On the first scoring drive, which opened the third quarter, the Clan went 73 yards in 12 plays, seven of which were runs.
The other five plays? Niksic went 5-for-5 through the air, including 12 yards to John on third-and-six and 52 yards to Ethan Beselt on third-and 12. His two-yard TD pass to John came on fourth-and-goal.
On the second scoring drive, which closed out the third, SFU went 57 yards in seven plays, of which three were runs.
Niksich was 3-of-4 through the air, including a 24-yard completion to John on third-and-12.
And on the third scoring drive, SFU’s next possession and one which opened the fourth quarter, the Clan went 56 yards in six plays, split evenly between the run and pass.
Niksich, for his part, went 3-of-3 including a big 12-yard completion on third-and-12 to John, eventually setting up the pair’s 25-yard, game-clinching TD connection on third-and-four.
Add up what Niksich did on those three second-half scoring drives, and he was a near-perfect 11-of-12 through the air, converting five third-down throws, and one fourth-down throw.
Considering it was just his fifth collegiate start, it’s no wonder GNAC insiders are tabbing him as one of the conference’s true rising stars.
But on Saturday, it was about all of the kids.
The ones who have hung in through all of the losing, and the ones newly-arrived who have fought hard to carve a new identity for the program.
“It was a whole-team effort,” said Ford. “This was the first game we put together all three phases for all four quarters. Tonight was awesome and we’ll celebrate the heck out of it, and we’ll cherish it a bit more tomorrow. But then it’s right back to work on Monday.”
And that’s because somewhere down the road, Thomas Ford wants nights like Saturday to become business as usual.
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