NORTHRIDGE — Given the circumstances, Cal State Northridge players and coaches have done a commendable job this week putting up a united and cheery front.
The Matadors' top rusher, Robert Trice, can't run and doesn't know which way to limp. He has a sprained big, left toe and a sprained right ankle.
Meanwhile, quarterback J.J. O'Laughlin still is unable to lift his throwing arm higher than his shoulder without the aid of his left hand.
Trice, who is listed as probable on the team's injury report, is expected to play in Saturday night's American West Conference game against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
O'Laughlin, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior, was downgraded Wednesday from questionable to doubtful because of a "sprained and strained" right, throwing shoulder, according to team doctors. He was hurt when he was tackled after throwing a pass just before halftime during a 21-7 victory over Chico State on Saturday.
Yet Northridge coaches would like to think there is still hope about his availability against a most bothersome conference rival.
One report out of Monday's practice was that O'Laughlin had been seen flipping a short pass in the direction of assistant coach Dale Bunn.
Most Matador players would like to believe O'Laughlin's wounded wing will be healed well enough for Northridge to launch an air attack against a typically stingy Mustang defense.
And if it is not?
"Trouble," a Matador starter said. "Big trouble."
Behind O'Laughlin is Clayton Millis, a sophomore transfer from Oregon who has completed only 11 of 34 passes for 76 yards with three interceptions, appearing most often as a reserve.
Behind Millis is Albert Razo, a fifth-year senior and the team's punter.
Statistically, Razo has fared considerably better than Millis. He has completed his only two passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.
He has a stronger arm than Millis, plus he has benefited from the element of surprise. Both of the completions were on fake punts.
Before this week, most of Razo's experience at quarterback has come while occasionally guiding Northridge's scout team.
"He probably knows their plays almost as well as he knows some of our plays," O'Laughlin quipped.
And to think Northridge would have been in this very same predicament far earlier had O'Laughlin not appeared out of nowhere--well, actually Illinois--just after the Matadors' first game of the season.
O'Laughlin's transfer to Northridge became official one day after Coley Kyman, the Matadors' top quarterback, suffered season-ending ankle and leg injuries in the team's opener against San Diego State.
In three years at Illinois, O'Laughlin had a single mop-up appearance at quarterback during a 51-10 rout of Houston in 1991.
After four days of practice at Northridge, he passed for two touchdowns in a little more than a quarter of action in the Matadors' second game, a 27-12 loss against Weber State.
The next week, against Northern Arizona, O'Laughlin was the starter.
His debut was a trial by fire. The Lumberjacks, correctly assuming O'Laughlin had some kinks to work out, flooded the line of scrimmage with defenders attacking from all angles. Northridge lost again, 23-9.
"They blitzed us like crazy and J.J., because he was still learning the offense, struggled that game," Northridge Coach Bob Burt said. "But he also showed a real competitive spirit."
O'Laughlin's second start resulted in the Matadors' first victory, 39-0, over Sonoma State; his third, a 24-18 upset of Nevada Las Vegas; his fourth, a 262-yard performance in a 31-30 loss against Cal State Sacramento; his fifth, 337 yards and a school record-tying five touchdown passes in a 48-38 loss against UC Davis. O'Laughlin passed for 117 yards against Chico before he was injured.
How fast he has gone from unknown to irreplaceable.
"All (Northridge coaches) promised me was a chance to compete and contribute," O'Laughlin said before a recent practice. "I couldn't ask for anything more.
"You want to play for a coach and a team who wants you there and wants to see you succeed."
Did that last comment sound like a thinly veiled slap at Illinois?
Among O'Laughlin's most cherished possessions is a ring commemorating a Big 10 Conference co-championship won by Illinois in 1990. He says he misses good friends and his girlfriend, Kathleen Shannon, the setter on the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team. But he does not miss Lou Tepper, the school's second-year football coach.
Tepper replaced John Mackovic, the coach who recruited O'Laughlin to Illinois.
When Mackovic went to the University of Texas, O'Laughlin said, his chances of becoming quarterback went south with him. In his three years at Illinois, O'Laughlin trained under two head coaches and three offensive coordinators.
O'Laughlin emerged from drills last spring in a three-way battle with Johnny Johnson and Scott Weaver. During summer workouts, it became apparent he was the odd-man out. O'Laughlin even fell behind Jeff Hecklinski, a freshman, according to some accounts.