A lot of great things can be disguised by a loss.
Yet if you witnessed the performance turned in Saturday night in no less a football town than near-mythic Odessa, Texas, you might be inclined to agree that not all ‘L’s’ are created equally.
“It was a great momentum builder, a great step moving forward, but again, we’re not in it for the moral victories,” stated Simon Fraser head football coach Mike Rigell by phone from outside the locker rooms at Ratliff Stadium, the same home field shared by the town’s famed Permian Panthers of Friday Night Lights vintage, after the Red Leafs (0-4, 0-4) played their most complete game of the season Saturday, rallying from a 21-2 deficit to force a 24-24 tie in the fourth quarter en route to a 31-24 Lone Star Conference overtime loss at the hands of the host Texas Permian Basin Falcons ( 3-3, 2-2).
“The guys are all in their crying right now, because they are all hurt… we all believed that we could win this game,” Rigell said, following a performance which was clearly the team’s most complete since it first started facing Texas-based NCAA Div. 2 foes in 2016.
To put it all in perspective, first consider that Saturday’s loss pushed Simon Fraser to 0-7 since it first started playing Texas-based Lone Star Conference teams seven years ago.
Included in that record is an 0-6 mark in Texas.
Then consider that over the first five of those six road losses, SFU was outscored by a total of 299-31! That’s why Saturday’s 31-24 OT heartbreaker deserves to be examined as an entirely different kind of loss.
The first place to start?
The SFU defence, facing a true spread alignment for the first time this season, played team defence as well as they have in recent memory.
Yes, there was the not-so-small matter of UTPB quarterback Dylan Graham connecting with MJ Link on a 93-yard scoring play to make it 21-2 Falcons just shy of seven minutes before halftime.
But besides that play, the Red Leafs allowed only two others of more than 20 yards the entire game.
A safety by rush end Tank Brewster, and a highlight-reel 12-yard touchdown connection from pivot Justin Seiber to receiver Robert Meadors at the back off the end zone pulled the Red Leafs to within 21-9 at the break.
“We’ve been known to give up the big plays, so that was major for us, limiting the explosive plays,” said Rigell. “When you don’t give those up, when you make teams really work to score, make them really earn it, then the game becomes a different grind.”
A big interception before the half by Ryan Barthelson from his safety spot, a game-high 11 tackles by safety Gideone Kremler, as well as seven solo stops apiece from linebackers Isaac Muckian and Drew Nicholson were among the defensive highlights for the Red Leafs, who limited the Falcons’ second-half offence to a single field goal while forcing the hosts to punt five times.
There was a stage late in former head coach Thomas Ford’s second season (2019) in which SFU’s offence looked ready to begin competing with every team in its then-GNAC conference.
In fact Saturday’s performance was the team’s most effective since the Red Leafs’ 24-17 win Oct. 19 of that season at Azusa Pacific.
And it all started with Seiber who went 23-of-39 for 394 yards, and three touchdowns against one interception.
Those majors were ticketed to three different pass catchers, led by the incomparable Ethan Beselt, whose eight catches for 223 yards and one touchdown yielded a game-breaking 27.9 yards-per-catch average.
Most impressive of all?
The way Beselt made in-route adjustments, coming back to the ball and showing off the dependability of his hands despite tight two-man coverage the entire night.
“He is a great player, a next-level player, and a guy who you are going to see playing in the CFL next year,” Rigell said of the West Kelowna-Mt. Boucherie grad who stands 5-foot-9.
And he wasn’t even fully healthy.
“He was about 80 per cent, coming off a groin injury,” said Rigell. “We almost didn’t even know if he was going to play tonight. It was a game-time decision. He just showed up and showed you the type of baller and gamer he is.”
To that end, Beselt’s 39-yard touchdown grab with 5:14 left in the third quarter pulled SFU to within 21-16.
After a Permian field goal made it 24-16 for the hosts, Beselt made a 51-yard catch which helped set up a clutch six-yard scoring strike from Seiber to Sam Davenport, the latter tightening the screws 24-22 with just 3:13 remaining.
Seiber then hit Meadors with a two-point convert pass to send the game into overtime, where the hosts scored on a one-yard Kory Harry rush, then held SFU out of the end zone on its only series to win the contest.
Beselt also made grabs of 33, 32, 25, and 20 yards as part of his eight-catch night.
Meadors had five catches for 76 yards and Davenport four for 45 yards.
The next chance to find that elusive victory comes this Saturday against Eastern New Mexico, the Lone Star’s only other winless team.
And having gone through the process of continuing to grow on the road, Simon Fraser’s near miss in Permian nonetheless represents a continued step in the right direction.
“It sucks to lose, but I told them all after the game that the old SFU is over,” said Rigell. “It’s a new direction we’re on and we’re just going to continue to get better.
“We’re like a vampire right now,” he added. “We’re thirsting for blood and for victory. And the thing that I like is that our mindset is right. We can’t wait to get right back at it next week.”
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