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Former Northridge Assistant Coach Kendall Blackburn Is at New Mexico State Helping to Revitalize the Woeful Aggies

September 12, 1997|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For two years, Kendall Blackburn did his bit to turn the Cal State Northridge football program into a winner.

He would like nothing more than to see the Matadors fail on Saturday.

Moreover, he's getting paid to help make it happen.

Blackburn, once a Northridge assistant, is the tight ends coach at New Mexico State (0-2), which plays host to Northridge (1-1) in a nonconference game at Aggie Memorial Stadium.

"I'm sure it'll be a funny feeling being on the other sideline," Blackburn said. "I'm excited about seeing several of the [Northridge] kids this weekend."

Blackburn was the defensive line coach at Northridge the past two seasons but left after Coach Dave Baldwin bolted for San Jose State in December. He got the New Mexico State job when the school tried to jump start its sputtering program by hiring Tony Samuel as head coach.

Samuel, a longtime assistant at Nebraska, needed lieutenants familiar with reclamation projects. Blackburn, a former graduate assistant with the Cornhuskers, needed a project.

He found a monstrous one in Las Cruces.

The Aggies were 1-10 in 1996, their fourth consecutive losing season and 15th in 16 years. They were more caricature than Division I-A material.

Last season, New Mexico State scored only 28 points in the first five games and was crushed by the Matadors, 33-0, in Game 4. The result trumpeted Northridge's arrival as a I-AA contender, and also magnified an Aggies' program in shambles.

The Matadors finished 7-4, their best record since 1986, and completed their first Big Sky Conference campaign tied for third place with a 5-3 mark.

"Northridge came down here and really embarrassed [the Aggies] and the kids want redemption," Blackburn said.

That might be easier said than done.

The Aggies endured lopsided road losses to New Mexico last Saturday and Arizona State on Aug. 30, games they undoubtedly played for the money and not for their mental well-being. But Blackburn believes the Aggies are not automatic doormats anymore.

"We are taking over something that's down a little bit," Blackburn said, "but I don't think it's as low as Northridge when I got there. . . . We are a better team than last year. It could take a year or longer to where we can be real competitive.

"There's a sense of urgency on our part because we want to get on the win column. We are getting better and better every week."

Northridge Coach Jim Fenwick agrees with Blackburn. He has pored over film of New Mexico State's two games and sees a determined and hungry team comprised largely of new players looking to make an impression in their first home game.

"This is their first game at home and a first opportunity to evaluate where they are because it's a common opponent," Fenwick said. "They've got a real good opportunity here."

The Aggies are desperately searching for opportunities and Blackburn can show them how to seize them, much like he helped steer Northridge in the right direction last year after a 2-8 season in 1995.

"I don't think any of us expected us to turn [the program] around in two years," Blackburn said. "I think we have a few more tools to work with here [than at Northridge] financially and with facilities. . . . Going through what we went through at Northridge, you can see that there's a pot of gold at the end."

Matador notes

Blackburn on Northridge quarterback Aaron Flowers: "He's so underrated and I don't know why. All he does is win." . . . Cornerback Tayari Ferrell on Wednesday had arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Ferrell, a junior from Inglewood High, was injured during Northridge's 34-21 loss to Hawaii last Saturday. He might return before the end of the season.

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