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Northridge Blockers Step Front and Center : Offense: Gaining experience and regaining health, Matador unit proves formidable.


If, as stereotypes suggest, offensive linemen are among the most cerebral football players, why don't Cal State Northridge blockers know that they supposedly are in a heap of trouble?

Tonight at 7 at North Campus Stadium, seventh-ranked Northridge (7-1) will meet 10th-ranked Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (7-1), which boasts what reportedly is the toughest green- and gold-clad defensive line this side of Green Bay, Wis.

San Luis Obispo is stingier than a Helmsley. The Mustangs are second in NCAA Division II against the run, allowing an average of 70.9 yards a game, and are third in total defense (229.9 yards).

End Pat Moore (6-foot-3, 265 pounds) and tackle Robert Morris (6-4, 270), senior anchors of the team's defensive front, are both considered pro football prospects.

So why aren't Matador linemen quaking in their grimy, black high-tops?

"It's not like we've never gone up against a good defense before," Rod Menzel, Northridge starting left guard, explained this week. "We have one of the best defensive lines around and we go against them every day of the year."

Indeed, CSUN is similar to San Luis Obispo in that its forte is defense, as has been known since summer training camp's first snap. If Northridge had an Achilles' heel, it was said, it was the offensive line.

Three months later, the Matadors seem to be limping along rather nicely.

Northridge, 4-0 in conference play and a game up on the Mustangs in the WFC title chase, has won seven in a row since losing its opener at Northern Arizona.

The foremost reason for CSUN's surge is the play of center Skip Allum, tackles John Chase and Don Goodman, guards Menzel, Matt Nicolo, Art Espino and Anthony McClellan and tight end George Fua.

Only Menzel, a part-time starter last season, had notable four-year-college experience entering this season. Little wonder that the line's early reviews were mixed.

Northridge won three of its first four games, but Albert Fann, the Matadors' All-American tailback, reached triple-digits in rushing only once. Since Northridge began conference play Oct. 6 with a win against three-time defending WFC champion Portland State, however, Fann's lowest total has been 127 yards.

"They're getting better every week," Fann said of his escorts, "but the Portland State game was the highlight of their season as far as when they started to turn it on and blow people off the ball. In the beginning, they were all new to the system and they had some problems. It just took a little time to get it together."

And to get healthy. Coach Bob Burt did not have his best six linemen available for the same game until Northridge traveled to Southern Utah State on Oct. 13. Even then, the Matadors were stretched thin. Espino, Nicolo and McClellan all played with sprained right ankles, each playing as long as he could before being replaced by another almost-as-gimpy teammate.

Talk about putting up a brave front.

One side benefit to Northridge's early rash of injuries is that the Matador line now has more interchangeable parts than a Lego set.

"I started off at left tackle and now I'm at right guard," Espino said. "Matt was right guard, now he's left guard. Goodman was left tackle, now he's both. It took a while, but we've finally settled in."

Burt says a line's familiarity breeds success.

"You've got line calls and getting the backs to feel where the holes are going to be behind each guy and how he blocks people. Those are all intangibles that really can't be measured," Burt said.

At different times this season, the Northridge line has adeptly executed each element of the Matador offense.

Against Southern Utah, the line sprang Fann and fullback Anthony Nicholson for 136 yards each by using a variety of trap blocks. Against Cal State Sacramento, the Matadors successfully used pitch plays and sweeps. As for pass protection, CSUN quarterbacks have been sacked only 11 times.

However, San Luis Obispo, as big and physical on defense as any Division II team, figures to stretch the seams of Northridge's pocket.

"It's going to be a great challenge, but they're men just like we are," Goodman said. "We're not losing any sleep over them. We're facing a tough defense. We're just going to have to overcome that."

Fann, for one, is tired of talking about the Mustang defense. He's ready to test it.

"Everybody is bragging on their defensive line, but I think we have a pretty good offensive line," Fann said. "If they just give me a little bit of room, I'll do what I can do."

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