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Top Spot Goes to Flowers

COLLEGE 1996 FOOTBALL

College football: Optimism reigns as Matadors begin play in new conference.

August 27, 1996|JEFF FLETCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The question is not whether Cal State Northridge's football team will be better this year than during a dismal 2-8 season in 1995.

With more speed, a few Division I-A transfers and a full season of experience in Coach Dave Baldwin's system, the Matadors almost certainly will improve.

But how much better will they be? And how much is enough?

This is Northridge's first year in the Big Sky Conference, the premier Division I-AA conference in the nation and home to the defending national champion, Montana.

Baldwin, in his second season at his alma mater, concedes nothing. But he's not talking about a conference title either.

"I don't want to get beat, 67-0," he said. "We're going to get beat. I'm not as concerned about that as not being embarrassed."

That's what happened last year, when Northridge lost to Northern Arizona, 68-7, and to Idaho State, 52-0. Those teams finished a combined 4-4 in Big Sky play.

Around the Northridge practice field, word is that this team is far more talented than its predecessor.

"It's not even close," senior receiver Tim Hilton said. "It's awesome."

The primary reason for optimism is that Northridge had 40 scholarships to award this season, twice as many as last year. The increase was a condition of Northridge's acceptance into the Big Sky. The conference also requires that Northridge approach the NCAA-limit of 63 by the 1998 season.

With the extra scholarships, Baldwin signed junior college transfers and even a few players from Division I-A programs.

The most notable addition is junior quarterback Aaron Flowers, a former backup at Utah State who passed for 3,135 yards last season at L.A. Valley College. Flowers will be running Baldwin's pass-oriented offense in the Sept. 7 opener, coincidentally at Utah State.

The top new receivers are junior Jerome Henry from Iowa State, freshman Jeramie Thomas from Colorado State, where he was a redshirt, and junior Cameron Perry from L.A. Valley. David Romines, the Matadors' leading receiver from 1994, is back after sitting out last season because of a shoulder injury.

"Last year we only had four or five receivers healthy all the time," said Hilton, who set a Northridge record with 64 catches. "This year we have 10 or 12. We should be really balanced so defenses won't be able to double-team anyone."

Northridge should also have a more effective rushing game. Last year's leading runner, senior Chad Marsalek (665 yards) is back, but he will be joined by speedy junior Norman Clarke, who gained 1,184 yards last season at San Bernardino Valley College.

The offensive line has added significant size, most notably junior Toma Popescu, 6 feet 3 and 300 pounds, from San Bernardino Valley; junior James Romero, 6-6 and 340, from L.A. Valley, and junior Johnny Gonzalez, 6-4 and 320, from Kings River College.

Defensively, the Matadors' top two additions are senior defensive back Steve Standifer, a transfer from Colorado State, and junior linebacker Marc Goodson, the former state junior college defensive player of the year at Laney College in Oakland. Senior linebacker Teddy Mack, who led Northridge with 100 tackles last season, is among four returning starters on defense.

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