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Spark-less Matadors Torched : College football: Northridge shows no fire in 30-6 loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in conference opener.


NORTHRIDGE — Better to burn out than fade away?

Cal State Northridge might have done both in its American West Conference opener on Saturday night.

Playing on turf that was singed during a pep rally bonfire at midfield earlier in the week, the Matadors failed to set anything ablaze and lost to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 30-6, before a homecoming crowd of 4,029 at North Campus Stadium.

This won't warm the cockles of anybody's heart, either: The Matadors (3-4) failed to reach the end zone for the first time since 1992 and have scored all of one touchdown over the past two weeks, both losses.

"We got outplayed, out-coached and out-hustled," Northridge Coach Bob Burt said.

Factor in the black cloud hanging over Northridge's collective head because of looming athletic budget cuts that might jeopardize the team's future, and it was a bleak night.

A pedestrian effort seemed strangely apropos for a team that showed up with generic red helmets. Players peeled the Matador logos from their helmets in a show of unanimity over last week's student defeat of an election referendum that would have generated more than $2 million annually for Northridge athletics.

"We felt that the school as a whole let the athletic department down," senior safety Joseph Vaughn said. "We weren't playing for the school, we were playing for ourselves."

Much of the misery, for the second time this season, was caused by reckless special-teams play. The Matadors committed two fumbles on punt returns and allowed a blocked punt that broke the game open.

On the latter, a Northridge drive stalled at the Cal Poly 45-yard line, though the Matadors at the moment were still very much in the game. However, Richard Pesti's punt was blocked by David Lombardi and recovered by David Brown, who returned the ball 16 yards to the Northridge 31.

Two plays later, quarterback Mike Fisher passed to receiver Judd Davis on a deep slant for a touchdown to give the Mustangs a 27-6 lead with 9 minutes 57 seconds remaining. Fisher, who passed for a school-record 409 yards a week earlier, completed 14 of 30 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns.

The blocked punt was just one in a series of irritants for the Northridge offense, which crossed the 50-yard line on three of its first four third-quarter possessions, but couldn't cut into Cal Poly's two-touchdown lead.

Senior receiver Duc Ngo was Northridge's only notable bright spot. The 5-foot-9 senior caught 11 passes, a single-game conference record, and also erased the Northridge career reception mark.

Ngo, who was born in Vietnam, has 111 receptions, breaking the mark of 106 set in 1966-67 by Dick Billingsley. The 11 catches also tied a North Campus Stadium record, though Ngo was despondent afterward.

"It's not sinking in," said Ngo, whose receptions covered 91 yards. "My assessment of the game is that I played very poorly. I thought we were ready for this game."

The first half was punctuated by a series of Matador bungles, including a pair of mishandled punt returns and a critical fumble at the goal line.

Trailing, 14-3, Northridge moved to the Cal Poly one-yard line on a well-executed, 10-play drive. On fourth down at the one, however, quarterback J.J. O'Laughlin dove over the top on a keeper--but left the ball behind. A bad exchange with the center meant Cal Poly took over on downs at the six with 3:21 left in the quarter.

O'Laughlin completed 25 of 44 passes for 223 yards. He had one pass intercepted.

"We played very poorly offensively," O'Laughlin said. "We shot ourselves in the foot offensively. I can't speak for the defense and special teams."

Cal Poly didn't waste any time cranking it up early. In fact, Fisher threw scoring passes on his first two attempts.

He connected with tight end David Snakenborg for a five-yard score after a nice bootleg, and when Northridge punted after four plays, the junior quarterback on first down hit tight end Tom Shaddix down the middle of the field for an easy 36-yard touchdown.

With receiver David Romines sidelined in the first quarter because of a strained right knee, the punt-return detail became an adventure, to say the least.

Cal Poly's first possession of the second quarter stalled, but Northridge's Jonas Walker fumbled the return and William Estelle recovered at the Matador 33. Four plays later, James Tuthill kicked a 48-yard field goal to give the Mustangs a 17-3 lead with 12:20 left in the half.

It could have been worse: Walker fumbled and lost another punt, this time at the Northridge 18, with 40 seconds left. However, cornerback Jim Rose intercepted a Fisher pass at the two-yard line to stop the damage.

Northridge's scoring in the first half was limited to field goals of 31 and 22 yards by Matt Ornelaz.

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