NORTHRIDGE — There it was, a spiraling football zipping toward Rob Pifferini III, with no one near him and nothing but open space between him and the goal line.
So Pifferini did what any eager linebacker who can smell a touchdown sometimes does.
He dropped the ball.
"I had nothing but clean green [ahead]," Pifferini said, laughing.
Yes, he did, in the first quarter of Cal State Northridge's 30-20 victory over Weber State last Saturday at North Campus Stadium.
But Pifferini, a senior starter for the Matadors, was up to the task the next time.
With 26 seconds to play, Pifferini picked off a pass by Steve Buck to secure the victory and give him two interceptions in the past two games--the only two in his two-year Northridge career.
And just like that, Pifferini leads Northridge in interceptions and is in a five-way tie for fourth place in the Big Sky Conference.
He will surely get plenty more chances Saturday when the Matadors (3-3, 1-1 in Big Sky play) visit Montana State (3-2, 2-1) for a crucial game that could keep them in the hunt for the conference championship or drop them out of playoff contention.
The Bobcats use a balanced attack, but are much more efficient with the passing game behind junior quarterback Rob Compson, who has thrown for 1,173 yards and nine touchdowns.
Pifferini, 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds, started for the first time this season against Weber State after playing primarily in specific coverages in the previous games.
"The coaches were getting a feel for combinations in the first few games," Pifferini said.
Last week, though, the Matadors went to a flex defense like Arizona's famed Desert Swarm from a few seasons ago and Pifferini got the nod at inside linebacker alongside All-American Marc Goodson.
He made four tackles, broke up two passes and helped the Matadors to their best defensive showing in weeks. He has 26 tackles, seventh-best on the team.
"It's not a showcase position, but he's a quite leader," said Kevin Singleton, Northridge's inside linebackers coach. "He and Marc do a pretty good job of keeping the morale up."
Pifferini, whose quick smile betrays his menacing-looking Fu Manchu mustache and bandanna-covered shaved head, teamed with Goodson early last season to give the Matadors an excellent one-two punch inside.
But Pifferini was knocked out for the season after suffering a broken right thumb in the first quarter of Northridge's 32-14 loss to Northern Arizona in Game 4. He still made 10 tackles.
"When they took the tape off after the game, the thumb was all contorted," said Pifferini, who had a career-high 13 tackles two weeks before against UC Davis and finished with 27.
The thumb, which suffered ligament damage, was repaired surgically and Pifferini contemplated playing while wearing a cast. The doctor quickly nixed the idea.
"The orthopedist said I would run a risk of having a frozen thumb for the rest of my life," Pifferini said. "I was upset because I fired off the gate. I started off so well."
Pifferini, the son and grandson of former NFL players, arrived at Northridge with strong credentials from De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. He was a two-year starter at outside linebacker for the Dons and an All-Coast Conference pick in his sophomore season.
Without football action after the surgery, Pifferini counted the days until he could play again.
"I sat out for a long time," Pifferini said. "I was real hungry but I was a little nervous. Surprisingly, I wasn't as rusty as I thought I would be."
Except when trying to pick off some passes, a challenge Pifferini welcomes.
"Every time you get the ball back for the offense, it's exciting," Pifferini said. "Just makes our series shorter."
Northridge (3-3, 1-1) at Montana State (3-2, 2-1)
When: Saturday, 11:35 a.m. (PDT)
Where: Reno H. Sales Stadium
Fast fact: Northridge has won three of five Big Sky Conference road games.