BURNABY — The Simon Fraser Clan may be young, but they are starting to show enough signs of forward progress that head coach Thomas Ford, after the team’s 2019 home opener, refused to use their overall inexperience as a crutch.
That was the story as the Clan (0-3) allowed the offence of the visiting South Dakota Mines Hard Rockers (1-2) just one trip to the end zone Saturday night at Swangard Stadium, yet still found a way to come out on the short end of a 26-7 loss.
How is that possible?
The Clan had two touchdowns taken off the board by the officials, and gave up its only points of the entire second half via two pick-six interceptions.
Add nine penalties for 105 yards to the mix, several of the preventable, lack-of-discipline variety, and you get one of the most frustrating setbacks of the program’s NCAA era.
“I was definitely disappointed in us not doing the little things, and that is what you saw tonight,” said Ford. “So much of what happened to us was self-inflicted. It was much less South Dakota Mines beating us than it was Simon Fraser beating itself.”
“We have to do a better job of focussing on those fine details,” said Ford whose team trailed just 13-7 at the half. “Whenever you have a young football team, those are the toughest things. But I am not interested in making excuses about having a young football team.”
On Saturday, the visiting Hardrockers, a pretty young team themselves, opened the scoring just over 10 minutes into the game when redshirt sophomore quarterback Toby Smith, making the first start of his collegiate career, fluttered a six-yard shuttle pass to tight end Ira Murphey to establish a 7-0 lead.
On the very next series, however, a play 99 per cent of football fans have likely never seen, took place.
Simon Fraser speed merchant Gavin Cobb, the sophomore receiver making his season debut coming off a 2018 medical redshirt season, flashed his jets as part of a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown from freshman quarterback Brandon Niksich.
The only problem was that two yards from the end zone, Cobb spun around to face the pursuing South Dakota Mines’ defence while back-pedalling over the goal line.
A penalty flag was thrown and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was assessed at the point at which Cobb had turned around.
Thus what looked like a highlight reel major was wiped clean from the scoreboard, and the Clan got the ball first-and-10 at the Rockers’ two-yard line.
That’s when bad mojo took over, and SFU went backwards, eventually having to settle for a 35-yard field goal by David Eisenkraft, which wound up missing wide right.
“Apparently you can’t turn around,” said Ford afterwards. “I have never seen that be called before, but at the end of the day, if you finish in the end zone and you hand the ball to the referee, then you don’t have that problem. There is no one that feels worse about it than (Cobb).”
On the night, South Dakota Mines had a huge advantage in field position.
Yet after the Cobb TD was nullified, the Clan defence was very good, and quite often exceptional considering that the Rockers got the ball inside the Clan 30-yard line on five more occasions but were held to just two Enis Sefa field goals. On the other three, South Dakota Mines was intercepted, turned the ball over on downs and missed a field goal.
“The defence was sound tonight,” said Clan running back Solomon Hines, who carried a workmanlike 20 times for 89 yards. “Now, the offence needs to move the ball more.”
The Clan’s lone touchdown came on the final play of the first half when Niksich’s 30-yard toss to the end zone was high-pointed between a pair of defenders by senior receiver Rysen John.
While Niksich went over 250-plus passing yards for the second straight week (25-of-39 for 259 yards, and 41-of-73, for 509 yards and two touchdowns combined over his first two games), the pick-sixes surrendered were daggers.
Will Carroll returned one 17 yards for a score, and Dominick Jackson 69 yards for the other.
“Really, on that last one, I don’t think (intended receiver) Ethan (Beselt) ever saw the ball. That’s why it looked like (Niksich) threw it right at the (Dominick Jackson),” said Ford.
Then, with 2:56 left in the game, the Clan had yet another touchdown taken off the board after a controversial offensive pass interference penalty.
Niksich hit receiver John, who stands 6-foot-7 and can out-jump virtually any receiver in the NCAA Div. 2 ranks, with what looked to be a 37-yard touchdown pass.
John came down with the ball and had to fight through the contact of the smaller defensive back, which he did, to cross the goal line.
Yet John was deemed to be the aggressor, pushing off to gain separation and find his way to the end zone.
Ford disagreed with the call, feeling strongly that the defensive player initiated the contact, but said “You can’t leave your fate up to the referees.”
Cobb’s return to action, his celebratory indiscretion not withstanding, brought an entirely new layer to the Clan offence and it will surely be refined as SFU prepares for its GNAC home opener Saturday against a hungry Azusa Pacific team.
Last season’s conference champs were stopped 42-36 at home in their GNAC opener by the Western Oregon Wolves and also fell to 0-3 overall.
“For us, now it matters,” said Ford. “We’ve played three (non-conference) games which in the grand scheme of things don’t really matter for us. If we want to win a conference championship, we have to beat conference opponents and we get our first one next weekend.”
Added running back Hines of the loss to the Hardrockers: “We were there with these guys the whole game but it was just us making dumb mistakes and taking dumb penalties that put us in tougher situations.”
Cobb finished with seven catches for 107 yards and 45 more yards on two kick returns.
Brendan Lowry with a game-high 11 tackles, and Matt Duda with seven, typified the hard-hitting nature of the Clan secondary. Linebackers Griffin Barrett and Anthony Crescenzo each had eight tackles.
The Hardrockers outgained the Clan by a narrow 380 yards to 339 yet were able to control tempo more effectively by out-rushing SFU 231 yards to 103.
Freshman running back Ahmad Lewis led the Rockers with 94 yards rushing, while Kaleb Roth added 83 yards.
SFU’s last win against an NCAA D2 foe came back in 2014 when the Jacques Chapdelaine-coached group topped South Dakota Mines 53-31 at Swangard Stadium.
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