On three straight shots to the end zone Saturday at Western Oregon, SFU quarterback Justin Seiber, along with receivers Aidan Pearce, Caelin Johnson and Riley Morrison came dangerously close to capping what would have been an 85-yard scoring drive against the host Wolves. Can a young team fighting but falling just shy of grabbing that kind of momentum come back next season and produce different results? That's the question now as Simon Fraser football prepares to play its final game of 2021 on Nov. 13. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Football

A SUNDAY READ: In Simon Fraser’s Saturday loss at Western Oregon, we examine the ripple effect of three snaps, no reward and a young team’s search for momentum

It’s impossible to encapsulate all the moments which, when taken as a whole, add up to that most fleeting of sports intangibles: Momentum.

The Simon Fraser football team has been attempting to find as much of it as it can with the hope that it will help lead them in the direction of their most elusive prize: A conference victory in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.

On Saturday, the penultimate GNAC game on SFU’s 2021 schedule brought them to Monmouth (Ore.) to face the Western Oregon Wolves.

And as has become the frustrating norm, Simon Fraser was unable to come away with a victory, it’s 42-3 loss lowering its overall record to 1-6 and its GNAC mark to 0-3 ahead of a Nov. 13 finale at Central Washington.

Yet despite the lopsided loss and the myriad plays which did not go their way, Simon Fraser did manage to string together one of its better drives of the season.

Although quite obviously a minute moment when placed against the entirety of what has thus far unfolded as yet another one-win season, it to these eyes is the perfect broad example of the kinds of moments that first need to go right before anything else of larger magnitude can expect to logically follow. 

As part of a 13 play, 74-yard drive just before halftime, Simon Fraser got down to the Wolves’ 11-yard line after WOU’s Daron Ulrich Jr., was flagged for pass interference on SFU quarterback Justin Seiber’s throw to receiver Caellin Johnson along the sidelines, the latter a player bubbling with potential and now back to full health following an early-season injury.

From that line of scrimmage, with his team trailing 19-0, Seiber took three consecutive shots down field to the same corner-area of the end zone, first to Aidan Pearce, then Johnson, and finally to the GNAC’s most prolific pass-catcher in Riley Morrison.

The return of Riley Morrison will be a huge part of the SFU offence in 2022. (Photo by Garrett James property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

It was the kind of aggressive play-calling that a team in dire need of a running game needed to make, Seiber made good throws, and all three of his intended targets, while well-covered, have made big catches this season.

In the end, however, all three went incomplete, and although Kristie Elliott was on target to salvage the drive with a 28-yard field goal, it’s hard to think of another time this season when the struggling crew from Burnaby Mountain, for the sake of its psyche, needed a touchdown more.

Of course none of this is trying to suggest that the game’s final outcome was going to be different had they succeeded, yet doesn’t every definition of a rally, however broad or minute, have to start somewhere?

So as we look to the future of Simon Fraser football beyond its finale at Central Washington in two weeks time, it’s hard not to hope, but also expect, that those are the kinds of moments which will finally start falling into place on a regular basis.

As it turns out, what was the football gods’ response to those points being left on the field?

How about a 42-yard kick-off return by the Wolves, followed by a 15-yard personal foul by Simon Fraser, all of which placed the ball at SFU’s 28-yard line.

Not four plays later, WOU back-up quarterback Gannon Winkler threw a 15-yard TD pass to Damon Hickock. For good measure, the pair then hooked up on the two-point convert.

Two minutes later, it’s halftime, and instead of coming out trailing 19-7 to start the third quarter with a healthy touchdown drive under its belt, SFU is momentum-less at 27-3.

“It becomes a serious momentum swing,” SFU head coach Mike Rigell said following the contest. “You work so hard to finally get down there, and we’re trying to find anything positive that can happen, and even though you get a field goal and you are happy for it, you just go ‘Man, we can make these plays.’

“Right now it’s a tough feeling in the locker room, especially after we played them the last time (a 24-7 loss Sept. 25 at SFU Stadium),” Rigell continued. “But I told then that we aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. They know that we come to play. But we have to take advantage of every opportunity and that means being locked in on every play. And right now, we’re not locked in on every play.”

That has been the toughest part of the Simon Fraser football re-start.

SFU has enough talent to where, against good-to-better NCAA D-2 programs like Central Washington and Western Oregon, it will have its moments on offence and defence over the course of a game.

On Saturday, the aforementioned 74-yard drive, with three opportunities from the 11-yard line with a strong-armed quarterback like Seiber, who with protection is as good or better than any opposition pivot they’ve faced this season, is an example of just such an opportunity. It’s the same with back-up Brandon Niksich, who subbed in the late stages Saturday, but who in 2019, while subbing for an injured Seiber, was the GNAC’s most prolific passer.

Yet until SFU’s mass of youth matures and more overall talent arrives to provide the same foundation its opposition has, a foundation of depth which can not only hang with teams into the third quarter, but not run out of gas when stretch-drive time appears, we will all arrive at the same unmistakable conclusion: This team has plenty of heart, but it has virtually no room for error.

And can there a tougher way to play the game?

SFU head coach Mike Rigell. (Photo by Paul Yates property of Vancouver Sports Pictures 2020. All Rights Reserved)

“You hope and you work towards having that break-out game where all three facets are playing at a high level but we haven’t done that yet,” says Rigell, who will now huddle with his coaches and players for two weeks of practice ahead of that Nov. 13 finale at powerhouse Central Washington, the same team whose toughest GNAC game this season came atop Burnaby Mountain against SFU back in mid-September. “But we’re learning who we are, how far we have to go as a program, and realistically, where we are right now as a program.”

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