DeKALB, Ill. — It felt good, Cal State Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy said, but he didn't trust it. Something in him knew better--knew how long a game is, knew how things can turn, especially for the Titans.
When their football season was two minutes old Saturday, the Titans had a three-point lead.
With four minutes gone, the lead was 10.
For the first 18 minutes, Fullerton quarterback Dan Speltz didn't throw an incomplete pass, finding his man on his first nine.
But--and you knew there would be a but--it didn't last. Not for Fullerton. Not in a season-opener.
The Titans had lost four of those in a row before Saturday, and after a 26-17 loss to Northern Illinois in front of 8,235 in Huskie Stadium, you can make that five.
They started so surely, with Terry Tramble batting away a pitch by Northern Illinois quarterback Stacey Robinson, then recovering it at the Huskie 11 to set up a 21-yard field goal by Phil Nevin, the first by the freshman who turned down the Dodgers' baseball offer to play at Fullerton.
Two minutes later, after getting the ball on the Huskie 32 after a punt, Fullerton reached the end zone on six plays and five complete passes by Speltz, including a five-yarder to Rocky Palamara for the touchdown.
It was enough to stir thoughts of a season in which the Titans could use the word "undefeated," at least for a week or so.
"I wasn't that optimistic," Murphy said. "I try to be as realistic as possible."
The Titan offense had a night of prosperity and poverty. Prosperity in the passing game--the Titans have gone to a short, quick passing game out of a one-back set.
Speltz passed for 304 yards and two touchdowns, setting school records for attempts (50) and completions (37).
But the ground game--"It was nonexistent," Murphy said.
Fullerton ran the ball only 15 times, and the Titans were held to a net of five yards on the ground. Thirty-five gained. Thirty lost.
Mike Pringle, the Titans' leading rusher last season, had 14 yards on 10 attempts.
As the game wore on, Fullerton found ways to foil itself. The Titans commited five turnovers, including an interception in the end zone with 49 seconds left that finally ended the Titans' hopes.
"I think we moved the ball real well," Speltz said. "But if you turn the the ball over that many times, I think it will be difficult to win. At the beginning, we cashed in. But as the game went on, we stopped ourselves . . . It's disappointing when you know you're not being stopped by your opponent."
Another interception, one of three Speltz threw, ended in a touchdown that gave Northern Illinois its first lead. Ted Hennings easily picked off a pass at the Fullerton 15 and ran it straight into the end zone to give the Huskies a 20-10 lead in the second quarter. The PAT was blocked.
The Huskies had scored two touchdowns on runs out of the wishbone by quarterback Stacey Robinson, the second a 20-yard ramble.
Fullerton cut the lead to three in the third quarter on J.J. Celestine's 27-yard reception from Speltz, but couldn't score again.
Northern Illinois' John Ivanic added field goals of 32 and 36 yards in the fourth quarter, the first set up by a 49-yard run by Brett Schroeder, and the second after Kevin Cassidy recovered Palamara's fumble at the Fullerton 29.
But, as ever, it seems, the Titans had their chances.
Fullerton's defense had kept the game close by holding Northern Illinois to a field goal that made it 23-17. The Huskies had a first-and-goal at the 8 after Schroeder's run, the final 30 yards of which he broke after having been surrounded. But John Bavaro, Fullerton's noseguard, dropped Robinson and Schroeder for losses on the next plays, helping force the Huskies to settle for a field goal.
But on Fullerton's first play from scrimmage after the kickoff, Palamara fumbled, and the Huskies again drove for a field goal.
Then Pringle gave the Titans a chance. Held to no more than an 11-yard run from scrimmage all night, he returned the kickoff 59 yards to the Northern Illinois 40 with 5:49 left. Speltz completed a quick pass to Palamara for six yards, and got two more on a draw play to Tim Byrnes. Speltz found J.J. Celestine open for eight yards, and added a quick pass to Byrnes for five. An incomplete pass brought up third and five at the 19, and Speltz found Mark Hill, but came up just short of the first down.
On fourth and short, the Titans ran the ball, and had about as much success as they did all night. Byrnes was stopped short of the line, and linebacker Ron DeLisi made the point emphatic by knocking the ball loose. Speltz fell on it, seven yards back.
Fullerton got one more chance, that one finally ending in the interception in the end zone by Paul Rogan. The pass was intended for Palamara, who was open but fell to the ground, the result of a push, Murphy claimed.
With the loss, Fullerton starts the season the way it has the past four. In 1985, the Titans were able to do above .500--barely--reaching 6-5. But since then, every year has ended in a losing season. "The game started off just the way we planned," Murphy said.
And ended just the opposite.
Safety Mike Schaffel suffered a concussion after a hit on a play in the first quarter, and did not return.