If there was one factor to consider about Simon Fraser’s 55-21 loss to host Div. 2 powerhouse Dixie State on Saturday in Utah, it was the way the Clan came ready to play over the final two quarters against a team in the transitioning stages of joining NCAA Div. 1 FCS as an independent in 2020.
“I think what I was most proud of was the fight my guys showed in the second half,” said Clan head coach Thomas Ford told VarsityLetters.ca after the game. “We’re down 38-7 at the half, and it takes a lot for a team just to get mentally ready to finish. But we came out and played our best second half of the year, by far.”
Dixie State kept the majority of its starters in the game, especially up front in the trenches, until about five minutes remained, and at that stage, both teams began to make major substitutions.
The Trailblazers weren’t in any danger of conceding a loss to the Clan (0-6, 0-2 GNAC) after building a 21-0 lead in the first quarter en route to the longest win-streak in its NCAA program history (five games) and it’s best start ever (5-1).
Yet there was something about the way in which SFU’s pure freshman quarterback Brandon Niksich just kept going about his business, despite a wave of pressure and the gruesome number of sacks (10) he played through without blinking.
“He is a warrior,” said Ford. “Through the face of taking that many sacks, guys are normally quicker to get out of the pocket and not sit and wait for routes to develop, but he showed no signs of wear.”
What he did show was his ever-increasing edge, and the kind of self-belief that just because he missed on some early, game-breaking type throws, he wasn’t going to temper what makes him unique.
So on a night when the Clan hit season-highs in points scored (21) and yards gained (380), Niksich was busy going 25-of-41 (61 per cent) for 327 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, finishing with a QBR of 144.1.
He has now gone 101-of-189 for 1,358 yards with six touchdowns against seven picks, his yardage total tops among GNAC quarterbacks, despite the fact he is the loop’s only pure freshman.
What impressed most?
Despite the onslaught of pressure, Niksich stood tall in the face of a devastating pass rush to put together two impressive drives over the final two quarters.
On the first, he took his team on a five-play, 70-yard drive capped by perhaps the most impressive touchdown catch of senior receiver Rysen John’s career.
John hauled in a 13-yard strike at the back of the end zone with a defender draped all over him, while using just his right hand.
On that drive, John also made 38 and 18 yards grabs from Niksich.
In the fourth quarter, it was a six-play, 69-yard drive capped by running back Mason Glover’s one-yard run with 10:32 left in the game.
On that drive, Niksich had big gainers to both Dallas Dixon for 17 yards and Ethan Beselt for 35 yards.
“He played his best game of the season,” said Ford of Niksich, who completed passes to nine different receivers, led by the incomparable John, who caught seven passes for 149 yards and a score, and once again impressed the opposition’s broadcast crew to no end with his balletic grace and towering stature.
“Brandon took so much better care of the football,” continued Ford, who was speaking not just about the clean sheet of no interceptions. “He had so many good throwaways, and to me those are not the same as incomplete passes. He gave us poise and leadership.”
Niksich, in fact, showed later just how much more effective he is passing when he has time in the pocket.
Flushed early, he just missed — prior to the second half — on three potential TD passes in the deep vertical game, first to Gavin Cobb, then to John and later to Beselt.
“Those three plays, we’re talking just being centimetres away from touchdown-making kinds of passes,” said Ford. “What we saw tonight was a true freshman finding his zone, and we just need to do a better job of protecting him.”
SFU got its first score of the game early in the third quarter when Niksich hit running back Solomon Hines on an improvisatory play from two yards out. The score was set up by Niksich’s 43-yard strike to John down to the Dixie State two-yard line.
While Dixie State was able to put its imprint on the game from the outset, building a 21-0 lead after the first quarter, the Clan weren’t without opportunities to make some noise of their own.
Early in the second quarter, rookie Jerrell Cummings tipped a pass by starting Dixie State quarterback Keaton Mott, and Kolby Buljevic was able to come up with the interception at the Trailblazers’ 24-yard line.
However SFU could not turn the takeaway into points as kicker David Eisenkraft’s attempt at a 43-yard field goal bounced off the crossbar and out.
In the third quarter, Cummings again got his hands on the ball, this time tipping a pass attempt away from its intended receiver and into the hands of Clan teammate Ian Crocker.
For a second, it looked like another Clan takeaway at the Dixie State 38-yard line, but the ball somehow slipped out.
Still, SFU looked like a completely different team in the late third and early-fourth quarters.
The running game with Hines and Glover started to make headway in the tough areas between the tackles.
The Clan’s young offensive line, which is learning through the trial-by-fire method, began to gain some cohesion.
“Our O-line started to develop it’s confidence,” Ford added. “We scored twice from the goal line in this game, and so I told those guys that if we can do that, there is no reason why we can’t have that same pad level and push (everywhere else on the field).”
Simon Fraser, 0-2 in the GNAC, has a chance to move out of the conference cellar next Saturday if it can beat host Azusa Pacific.
The Wildcats (1-2) will be in a foul mood, however, after being roughed up 44-6 by Central Washington. Western Oregon played out of conference, earning an impressive 26-14 win over Texas A&M Kingsville.
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