BURNABY —On a fall Saturday where you had everything from a terrific Oregon-Washington overtime football game at Autzen, to a pair of MLB league championship series contests, to Travis Lulay’s return under centre in a rare Lions’ win in Calgary, perhaps the easiest thing to do was gloss over the score from atop Burnaby Mountain.
Yes, the Simon Fraser Clan’s 28-17 loss to California’s visiting Azusa Pacific Cougars was the team’s sixth loss in a row.
Yet despite its imperfections, it was the team’s best game of this season, played against a foe who just a week ago sat in the NCAA’s Div. 2 Top 25 national rankings, and who back on Sept. 8 took this same Clan team out behind the woodshed en route to a 58-14 victory.
“In my three years here, this is the best place this football team has been,” said SFU’s senior quarterback Miles Richardson following the defeat. “It’s exciting and we’re so close. But it’s tough to get this close, because we are kind of our own worst enemy right now.”
To keep things totally real, the Cougars opened the game with back-up quarterback Jesse Hanckel commanding the huddle and starting quarterback Tyrone Williams, still not fully healthy, on the sidelines.
Yet the Clan defence was so effective against the Cougars that by the time Azusa Pacific pulled Hanckel from the proceedings midway through the third quarter, the Cougars were clinging to a 7-0 lead.
That’s when a booming Cougars’ punt was horribly misplayed by a member of the Clan’s return unit.
Instead of getting out of the way of the 74-yard punt, which took a pronounced Azusa Pacific bounce, the Clan player continued to hover in the vicinity. Officials ruled that it grazed off his leg and that it was then recovered by the Cougars at the SFU eight-yard line.
Quite suddenly, first string pivot Williams was summoned into the proceedings and three plays later, APU’s Bryce Grandison ran it in from two-yards out for a 14-0 lead.
“That was a huge play,” lamented Clan head coach Thomas Ford afterwards of the special teams gaffe. “Honestly, at that point, it’s the biggest play of the game. I don’t think we ever lose a game off one play, but that didn’t help.”
Yet for a program which has slogged through so many years of losses, and so many games in which mistakes have been piled upon mistakes, that one seemed to especially magnified just based on how well SFU had played up to that juncture.
Yes, the Clan are still a challenged team when it comes to consistently demonstrating an ability to score when they need, and get stops when they need to.
But on Saturday?
SFU’s defence held Azusa Pacific to 0-for-5 on third down over the first half. And on the game, they limited the Cougars to just 2-of-9 while going 7-of-18 themselves. That is impressive in anyone’s playbook.
The Clan also won the time of possession battle 35:25-to-24.35, put up 385 yards of offence to APU’s 323, and took only 65 yards in penalties compared to 120 by the visitors.
Of course none of these are absolutes and games can be decided in any number of ways.
But these are the signs that tell you there is more to Simon Fraser’s growing football culture than its 1-6 overall record and its current six-game losing streak.
“The process is correct,” reinforced Ford, as the teams played to what was basically a stand-off after the Cougars had built their 14-0 lead.
“I think you saw tonight that our kids can do it, it doesn’t matter who we play. Azusa Pacific was in the national rankings last week until they lost to (current No 21-ranked GNAC rival) Central Washington. We were stride for stride with them tonight, and honestly, in a lot of ways, we lost the game more than they won it.”
All of this came on a night where, despite Azusa’s plethora of talent, SFU’s Richardson was the best player on the field.
Not only did he pass for 199 yards and two scores, he also rushed 17 times for team-high 53 yards, and when asked, moved to receiver where he caught five passes from freshman pivot Justin Seiber for a further 53 yards, the second-highest receiving total on the team.
Add it all up and he had a direct hand in 305 yards of offence.
And, what makes it all the more inspiring is that none of it came easy.
Ford could see how much Richardson was sacrificing because he actually gained 84 yards rushing, but lost 31 getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage. He was also sacked five times.
“The No. 1 thing I can say about Miles Richardson is that he is the ultimate teammate,” Ford said. “Miles is not interested in saying ‘Oh, if I’m not playing quarterback, I’m going to sulk.’ He’s going to play receiver and he is going to go out and catch the ball. If we needed him to play on the O-line, he’d probably do it.”
It’s easy to say that young players, not seniors, are the future of Clan football.
Yet on a night when the locals made you think that signature win might just come now, Richardson’s actions were setting a template for the future.
“He’s a complete team guy and sometimes when you take over a program, you don’t know if you’re going to get that out of your seniors,” Ford says. “But he’s bought in. He’s a guy that I could see helping us in a coaching capacity after his playing career is over.”
With 3:25 left on the game clock Saturday, you were left wondering.
Matteo Montagliani intercepted Azusa’s QB-1 Williams, and six plays and 80 yards later, Richardson hit talented receiver Rysen John for a 17-yard touchdown.
SFU was within 21-10, and things looked even better when kicker Kees Metselaar sent a line-drive onside kick off a wall of Cougars 10 yards away and them himself recovered the ball to give the Clan yet another chance on offence.
Richardson, however, was picked off and the interception returned 42 yards to the Clan one-yard line, where Grandsion made is 28-10 on the next play with a one-yard run.
All of this is brought to your attention to stress that down the stretch drive, all SFU did was continue to hold its own because once again, they answered Azusa Pacific’s score with some heroics of their own.
SFU’s 6-foot-2, 300 pound freshman defensive tackle Davion Dixon recovered a fumble and returned it 11 yards to the Cougars’ 22-yard line.
Richardson then sent a touchdown strike to tight end Spencer McCabe at the back of the end zone with 44 seconds remaining to make the 28-17 loss final.
“They see the progress we’re making and they don’t look at it like we’ve lost six games,” says Ford. “They look at it from the perspective of how much better we’ve all gotten.”
Of course it has to lead to something, and after a game like that, the mercury certainly seems to be rising,
It might have been an score easy to gloss over for many, but even in defeat, there was a whole lot happening Saturday for the football team that resides atop the mountain.
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