NORTHRIDGE — Ever since Cal State Northridge joining the Big Sky Conference was first talked about, skeptics wondered--with the same morbid curiosity that makes people gawk at a car accident--what would happen when the football team played Montana.
These days, with the Matadors having a surprisingly successful season that has seen them on the verge of cracking the Division I-AA top 25, the thought of Northridge on the same field as the Grizzlies is not so, well, grisly.
Or is it?
The answer will come tonight when Montana, ranked No. 2 in Division I-AA, rolls into North Campus Stadium for a 5:05 game, bringing a horde of die-hard fans following the Grizzlies on their way to what they hope will be a second consecutive national championship.
Northridge Coach Dave Baldwin, who woke up Sunday morning on the couch in his office so he could get an early start on the Montana game films, simply shook his head when asked to describe what he had seen.
"They're a national championship team," he said. "There's no doubt about it."
Kendall Blackburn, the defensive line coach, sat in another room with a remote control in his hand, scanning over a tape of Montana's offense shredding yet another defense.
"Man," he said, almost in disbelief. "They're good."
-- Montana has won 14 games in a row and 20 of its last 22. The Grizzlies (7-0, 4-0) have made the 16-team I-AA playoffs five of the last eight years.
-- Montana leads the nation in passing offense, averaging 370.9 yards a game. The Grizzlies are second in the nation in total offense, rolling up 506.71 yards a game. Quarterback Brian Ah Yat has passed for 500 yards or more two weeks in a row, both times against top 20-teams.
-- Montana is averaging 40.3 points a game.
-- Montana is ranked 47th among all Division I-A and I-AA teams in Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings, which puts them eighth in the Pacific 10 Conference, just below UCLA and above Oregon.
"We're going to have to play beyond anything that we've ever played," Baldwin said. "We're going to have to put four quarters together that are phenomenal . . . and we have to get lucky."
Baldwin is talking about what needs to happen for Northridge to beat Montana.
A year ago, that seemed an impossible dream.
As preseason camp began in 1995, Baldwin had been on the job for about three months. He barely knew his assistant coaches, much less his players.
The Matadors were a sorry bunch, lacking in size, speed, talent and experience. After a season-opening victory over Division III Menlo College, Northridge lost its next five games by a combined score of 228-37.
Northridge eked out a 34-28 victory over Southern Utah, then lost its last three games to finish 2-8.
Baldwin's plan to build Northridge into a team that could compete in the Big Sky was to split the 20 extra scholarships the school had granted him abetween high school and junior college players.
The problem was few high school players wanted his scholarships.
"We made an effort to recruit [high school players], but we weren't winning," Baldwin said. "High school kids aren't excited unless you are winning."
So Baldwin wound up loading his roster with junior college players and transfers who were unhappy at Division I-A schools. Those players, and a return by receiver David Romines, who missed last year because of a shoulder injury, have been the key to the turnaround.
Among the most important junior college pickups were quarterback Aaron Flowers, who has passed for 2,152 yards in seven games; linebacker Marc Goodson, who leads the team with 106 tackles; receiver Cameron Perry, who has caught 36 passes; running back Norman Clarke, who has run for 387 yards in his last three games; and defensive lineman Hernan Santiago, who leads the team with seven sacks. Three of the starters on the offensive line--Toma Popescu, David Joralemon and James Romero--also came via the junior college route.
The best of the Division I-A transfers have been safety Steve Standifer (Colorado State), who is third on the team in tackles; receiver Jerome Henry (Iowa State), third on the team with 24 catches; and Jeramie Thomas (Colorado State), a fast and versatile player who has been used as a receiver and running back.
In the opener at Utah State this year, 13 of the 24 starters were new to the Northridge program.
The results have been dramatic. The Matadors needed only three games to equal the two victories they recorded in 1995. The most stunning victory was a 33-0 rout of Division I-A New Mexico State on the road.
Northridge has posted a 5-3 record, a surprising 2-2 in the Big Sky Conference. After the Matadors beat Weber State, which was ranked 21st at the time, they rose to No. 28 in the Division I-AA poll.
Northridge could easily be 6-2 and in the top 25 if the Matadors hadn't played their worst game of the year in a home loss to Montana State two weeks ago.