SAN DIEGO — There was no dress rehearsal this time. The troupe has gone straight from auditions into the opening act.
No one's expecting a standing ovation, but past performances would indicate the University of San Diego's football team is no Theater of the Absurd.
When the curtains finally close on the Toreros season, its last as a Division III program, it hopes to have given the performance of a lifetime.
The season begins at 7 tonight at Torero Stadium, when USD opens the 1992 season against Division II Cal State Hayward.
Because of NCAA rules limiting schools to a 10-game schedule, USD passed on its usual preseason scrimmage against Mesa College, leaving the Toreros hazy on how prepared they are is.
"Without the scrimmage, we don't have the feel for where we are," said senior Michael Bennett, USD's returning starting quarterback. "But I have a gut feeling we're prepared."
Coach Brian Fogarty is concerned for the same reason: "We don't want to spend a lot of time teaching the guys how to beat our own defense."
Defensive back Matt Horeczko, who had 77 tackles and deflected seven passes last year, said USD is sick of lining up against its own.
"We're looking forward to going out there and hitting as hard as we can for four quarters," he said.
That work ethic must be sustained for two months if USD is to reach its longtime goal of making its first NCAA playoffs since 1973.
Next year, this independent, non-scholarship Division III school aligns itself with the Division I-AA Pioneer League. Realistically, it will be several years before a playoff berth is possible for USD at that level.
"It has been a goal we've had for several years," Fogarty said. "But because it's left up to people who vote, and we're so far away from everyone else in the region, our kids have learned that they can have a great year and still not go."
And so, USD won't base its entire season on a place in the playoffs. But the general feeling among the Toreros is playoff or no playoff, this team owes something to history.
"What we do this year will be remembered for a while," said junior linebacker Marcus Carter. "We want to be remembered as the best."
Carter, one of a handful of non-senior starters, said he welcomed the move up and the chance to play "a lot of guys that are bigger and more talented."
But the immediately need is the season at hand.
"This is the last chance to be Division III champion," said Carter, who had 60 tackles as a sophomore. "That's a big challenge. We'd like to go out on a high note."
Bennett, a Point Loma High product, said playoffs are a goal, "but 10 things (games) have to go right to get there."
Ten things almost went right last year.
In 10 years at USD, Fogarty has compiled a 47-38-2 record. The last three years his teams have gone 21-7, including a 7-3 mark in 1991, when USD lost, 21-20, in back-to-back games. The third defeat was by eight points loss to Azusa Pacific.
"Had we even gotten one of those, we'd have probably been in the national playoffs," Fogarty said. "It's frustrating, but when you're that close, you don't make many changes, because you know you're right there. If they were big losses, then you have to rethink what you're doing."
But they weren't. So he's not.
Instead, USD returns to the system that has taken them this far.
On offense, that means the misdirection of the Wing-T, which USD has used successfully since 1987.
As it traditionally has, USD should run more than throw, and senior fullback Scott Sporrer (876 yards, five touchdowns) and sophomore running back Michael Henry (269 yards) have some experience.
Missing from 1991's offensive bonanza is Sweetwater High graduate Willie Branch, the Toreros' offensive player of the year, who set a season rushing average (10.6) last year.
Thanks in large part to Branch, USD outrushed opponents, 2,741 to 1,184 yards--the 2,741 is a season, team rushing record--and outscored them, 282 to 170 points. Branch and his brother, Danny, a defensive back last year, were both academically ineligible.
The players are aware of the void and where they must pick up slack.
"We lack the explosiveness we had last year with Willie," Sporrer said. "He'd have those big plays, and we'd be able to get off the field and rest."
Said Bennett: "Now it's three yards and a cloud of dust."
Some dust. Sporrer is 719 yards shy of breaking the career rushing mark Todd Jackson established from 1986-89.
"Sure you have individual goals," Sporrer said. "But you do your best to help the team. People always ask me how many yards do I need to break the record, but I don't even know what the record is."
To come close to it, Sporrer will need room to run, and Fogarty said it should get it. The coach has habitually employed the Wing-T to offset relatively undersized offensive lines, but this season is different.
"That's why we're looking forward to this year. We think we're very strong," he said.