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MIKE DOWNEY

No Running Down This Football Team

September 03, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

I spoke with Bob Burt, football coach from Cal State Northridge and damn proud of it, because I've been wondering what it must be like to be Saturday's season-opening opponent for San Diego State and the nation's leading Heisman Trophy contender, Marshall Faulk.

I liked his answer.

"Logic tells you it's kind of like being Kuwait," Burt said.

You wonder what you're doing here, or how this could have happened. Yours is a football school previously from Division II that has spent its weekends butting helmets against Sonoma State or Southern Utah or some such team. You usually are more comfortable pounding the snot out of some poor tailback from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo rather than lining up against a team that rumbles with the likes of Miami or Brigham Young, the way San Diego State often does.

So, you keep your sense of humor.

Then again, you can't ignore what others have been saying.

"I've read some articles calling us 'sacrificial lambs,' " Burt said. "I take great exception to that. I've heard people accuse us of 'sacrificing' our kids with this game. We don't look at it that way, believe me. We're not sacrificing anything. We're looking at this as an opportunity."

So, Saturday morning, every member of the Northridge team will climb onto a bus--it costs too much to stay overnight at a hotel--that will exit at the 405 South ramp and point toward Baja for the battle ahead. It is a fight that sounds as though it should be contested in sand--hand-to-hand combat, Matador versus Aztec.

San Diego State opened last season against USC. In a 31-31 tie, Faulk ran for 220 yards.

"I find it pretty interesting that we replaced USC on their schedule," Burt said.

How did this come about? It isn't complicated. San Diego State needed an opponent. Northridge needed the money. This isn't the first case of this happening in college football, and it won't be the last. Nebraska opens this season against North Texas. Miami has a date a few weeks from now with Georgia Southern. There's nothing wrong with it. Not every game can be for a bowl bid.

For Burt, it's a reminder of days long ago when he was an assistant at UCLA, at Hawaii, at Fullerton. Ever since he took over the program at Northridge, things have improved there by leaps and bounds. He is beginning his eighth season there and had five consecutive winning records before last year's 5-5.

Why hasn't he moved on?

"Ha!" he laughed. "Nobody's asked."

I think they yet might. It hasn't been easy developing a college program in these days of cutbacks taking priority over fullbacks. Scheduling a game against San Diego State reminds this coach of "the days of 90 full rides" that he experienced on major collegiate levels, instead of 65 as he has now. Burt built with home improvement worthy of Tim Allen in 1991 when his Matador team went 7-4 and got him voted this Division II region's coach of the year.

He's got a pretty solid squad this season that shouldn't be intimidated by San Diego State and shouldn't treat it like the end of the world if Saturday's game goes badly. The defense alone has some promising players such as outside linebackers Ivy Calvin and Angel Chavez, tackle Victor Myles and backs Gerald Ponder, Ralph Henderson and Vincent Johnson, all of whom can hit.

Will they hit Faulk?

If they can. Burt says, "Everybody wants to know, 'How is Northridge ever going to stop Marshall Faulk?' And I just keep laughing, because who the hell else has?"

There are wise guys on the San Diego State campus who doubt if the Northridge posse can even find Jack Murphy Stadium, much less Marshall Faulk at the stadium. When a couple of the Matadors visited that campus recently, wearing shirts identifying their school, they got hooted down by several Aztecs they encountered along the way.

Incentive? Burt says, "My biggest concern is coming out of this thing healthy."

But he naturally hopes his underdogs will have a little bite in them, as does Mark Banker, his defensive coordinator, who has been working with Northridge players for 13 seasons and would love this to be the day his hitters really came to hit.

Is Northridge's student body up for this, too?

"Last I heard," Burt said, "there wasn't a ticket left on campus."

So, here they go. It isn't Notre Dame, I know. It isn't Washington or Michigan or Alabama. But this is a big day for Northridge Matador football, win or lose. They're playing in the big time now.

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