Despite all of the growing pains which have been part and parcel of the first half of their Great Northwest Athletic Conference season, Simon Fraser Clan freshman quarterback Brandon Niksich still managed to find a way to pass for more yards than any pivot in the conference.
On Saturday afternoon in Monmouth, Ore., however, things felt different right from the start.
Facing relentless pressure from the front seven of host Western Oregon, Niksich just never had the time or opportunity to get into an offensive groove as the Clan (0-5, 0-2) fell 51-14 in its GNAC road opener to the Wolves (3-2, 3-0), a veteran team which against all preseason prognostications finds itself atop the standings at the midway mark of their season.
“Western Oregon has got a really good front seven and they were very active,” said SFU head coach Thomas Ford. “What you saw today was their edge players really getting up the field.”
Western Oregon, however, found itself frustrated by the Clan defence throughout the opening half.
The host Wolves, in fact, led just 13-0 with a minute remaining in that first half, a span in which the Clan defence went into its usual extended stretch of bend-but-don’t-break play, while its special teams had a 43-yard field-goal attempt by David Eisenkraft blocked.
Western Oregon, however, was able to hit on a 15-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Ty Currie to receiver Jarren Ford with 57 seconds remaining, giving them a 20-0 lead at the break. The Clan gave up a back-breaking 24-yard keeper by Currie on third-and-20 to set up the score.
With the game still within reach, however, the Clan suffered what was their biggest setback of the contest as they took the ball to begin the third quarter.
Niksich moved his team 59 yards from its own 16 down to the Western Oregon 25 with precision, completing five passes to four different receivers in Rysen John, Ethan Beselt, Robert Meadors and tailback Solomon Hines.
However on first-and-10, his pass attempt was deflected by WOU senior linebacker Tyler Wharf and scooped up by fellow Wolves’ backer Jaylin Parnell, who returned it out to his team’s 39-yard line.
Just four plays later, trickeration hit.
The Wolves ran a reverse, yet on the hand-off, senior receiver Tyler Reid, an Oregon Ducks transfer, cut his crossing pattern short and connected on a 47-yard touchdown strike to fellow receiver Shaw Jerome.
Just like that, it was 27-0 with the second half barely underway.
“They are notorious for trick plays,” said Ford. “I’ve coached against them now three times, and in all three games, they’ve run a trick play.”
The Clan defence was left vulnerable, and that left Jerome wide open for the score.
“Any time you turn the ball over during a really good drive inside of their 30, it’s difficult,” said Ford, “but whenever they turn it into a score, it makes it even tougher, and points off turnovers have been our Achilles’ heel.”
That 47-yarder off the reverse set up a score, but later in the half, big plays led directly to two others: The Clan gave up touchdowns off a 90-yard pass completion and a 69-yard rush.
All three, as the team will discover in film sessions this week as they prep to play at Dixie State this Saturday, came from assignment errors and a lack of gap integrity.
That’s the bad part.
The good part is that those kinds of mistakes, while gruesome on tape, are correctable and not the result of being physically out-played at the point of attack.
Still, all of that is meaningless without follow through.
A true negative, however, was the Clan’s 2-of-13 third down conversion rate, a percentage that Ford readily admits will simply not get the job done.
“The time of possession was pretty near even, we made 20 first downs, but at the end of the day we have to sustain drives and to do that, you have to convert on third down.”
The team’s hope, or course, is that the experience gained will continue to help then turn a corner.
Simon Fraser’s two-deep for Saturday’s game listed 19 pure or redshirt freshmen, while WOU’s listed two.
Niksich was 16-of-34 for 210 yards and one interception, and although he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in his college career as a starter, his 44-yard strike to receiver Gavin Cobb down to the WOU four-yard line set up running back Solomon Hines’ short scamper late in the game as the Wolves began to play their second string.
Ford inserted senior back-up Mihai Lapuste at quarterback for the final series, and the ex-Handsworth Royal went 6-of-7 for 59 yards, capping the day with a 10-yard TD pass to receiver Rysen John.
John had the attention of the entire Wolves’ defence for the duration of the day and caught seven passes for 64 yards.
Meanwhile, two Clan players topped 100 yards in all-purpose yardage.
Cobb led the way with 177, rushing for 11 yards, catching six passes for 90 yards and returning three kicks for 76 more.
Hines had five returns for 92 yards and six carries for 13 more to finish with 105 all-purpose yards.
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