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Ever So Humble, Northridge Is Home

Football: After three road games, Matadors (1-2) play Azusa Pacific at North Campus Stadium on Saturday night.

September 18, 1997|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Residing in college football's equivalent of a cheap motel is not comforting for Cal State Northridge, but the Matadors nonetheless are happy to be home.

Even if no one left a (bright) light on for them.

After a three-game crusade to five-star facilities, the Matadors, looking much like ragged road warriors, are preparing for their North Campus Stadium opener Saturday night against Azusa Pacific.

"We are tired of traveling and we are tired of losing," Coach Jim Fenwick said.

Fenwick, in his first year with the Division I-AA Matadors, believes starting the season with three consecutive games against I-A programs has given the team invaluable experience but it also took a toll.

The euphoria of crushing Boise State, 63-23, in the opener on Aug. 30 quickly yielded to the disappointment of coming close but losing the following week to Hawaii, 34-21.

That letdown paled in comparison to falling against New Mexico State, 28-18, last week in a game the Matadors virtually gave away.

"The way we played the last couple of weeks, that's what I'm responsible for and that's what I'm embarrassed about," Fenwick said.

Not long ago, embarrassment and Northridge football were synonymous. But now the Matadors, getting optimum mileage from only 45 scholarships, are I-AA upstarts who can seriously tussle with much larger programs.

But they pay a price for it.

With a traveling squad of no more than 58 players, the Matadors went off to first-class but hostile venues in Boise and Honolulu and Las Cruces, challenging teams with upward of 85 players on scholarship.

They returned the past two weeks often hurt and always dejected after particularly physical games in which their lack of depth was evident. Still, Fenwick figures that all was not lost in the wash.

"We'll be able to draw on the fact we traveled and played some tough opponents," Fenwick said. "I feel very confident we are able to compete at the Division I level. . . . It's been a real good education for us."

The lessons were plentiful, including:

* The Matadors have an explosive attack that averages 408.7 yards passing, tops in I-AA.

* They rank last among Big Sky Conference teams with a passing defense rating of 165.0. They are allowing 218.3 yards per game.

* The Matadors average 492.3 yards, eighth-best in I-AA.

* They give up 442.3 yards, second-worst among Big Sky teams. Their defense against the run is awful, allowing 224 yards per game.

At no time was Northridge's inability to stop the run more clear than at New Mexico State, where Denvis Manns cruised to 221 yards and two touchdowns in 31 carries.

Granted, the Northridge defense was missing some key players because of injuries and spent long periods on the field after the offense turned over the ball four times, but assignments were missed and adjustments were rarely executed properly.

But Fenwick sees no reason to panic.

"It's hard to go in and make fundamental changes," Fenwick said. "We'll try to improve and develop answers . . . but there won't be structural changes."

Not many should be needed against Azusa Pacific (0-2), an NAIA school that is probably way overmatched against the Matadors.

Venturing into the Big Sky season, however, without improvements could prove costly. After a bye next week, the Matadors start conference play at Portland State on Oct. 4.

"We are looking [forward] to playing at home, looking forward to wearing our red jerseys," Fenwick said.

"I'm hoping we can find that fire and that pride such as we had going into the first game."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Matador Marks

Running Game

Solid and deep but underused. Jahi Arnold averages 4.8 yards per carry and Norman Clarke averages 3.9

Grade: B-

*

Passing Game

Among the best in Division 1-AA. Senior Aaron Flowers in rewriting the Northridge record book.

Grade: A-

*

Rushing Defense

Against the run: On pace for worst showing in five seasons of 1-AA competition. Allowing 224.0 yards per game.

Grade: D

*

Pass Defense

Burned for 328 yards by Hawaii's Tim Carey, the only legitimate passing quarterback the Matadors have faced. Need to regroup before opening play in the pass-happy Big Sky Conference on Oct. 4.

Grade: C-

*

Special Teams

The Matadors average 13.9 yards per kickoff return and 5.7 yards per punt return, but at the other end give up 21.7 and 9.1 yards. Junior Brian Walker is averaging 41.9 yards per punt, 19th best in 1-AA.

Grade: D+

*

Coaching

Starting season on the road against three 1-A opponents was no easy task for first-year Coach Jim Fenwick, but the Matadors could have won last week at New Mexico State with a little more inspiration. Conversely, Fenwick showed guts in benching the team's top three running backs for the first half for violating curfew the night before. Injuries to key personnel have hurt.

Grade: C+

*

* MATADOR NOTES

Guard Tafi Aina, a Channel Islands High graduate, continues in starting role. C12

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