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A Jolt Out of the Blue

Matadors' struggling running back hopes to get going today against Montana.

October 10, 1998|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Melvin Blue walks slowly to a bench on the practice field, his left hand over his left eye, his right arm pulled down by the weight of a football helmet.

Blue sits on the bench, his eye teary and red, as other Cal State Northridge players peek at the team's bruising running back, wondering if he's badly hurt.

A trainer inspects the damage, cleanses the eye with drops and leaves Blue to tell inquiring minds why his day on the field was cut short.

"I faked taking a handoff and got poked in the eye by one of the offensive linemen," Blue says. "I don't know how his hand got in my face."

It's been that kind of a season for Blue.

The 6-foot, 230-pound senior transfer from Utah State, the guy NFL scouts come to watch, the punishing ballcarrier the Matadors figured would make them more unpredictable in their spread offense, is struggling.

Blue, from Banning High in Wilmington, has 283 yards in 90 carries and four touchdowns, far below what he expected after starting eight games for the Aggies last year and rushing for 741 yards, second-best on the team.

Every game, Blue hits the field thinking he'll break out, but comes away disappointed. His best production was 96 yards against Northern Arizona three weeks ago, his best run a 31-yard steamroll last week through Southern Utah, with two defenders in tow for half the distance.

"I know I can run the ball," Blue said. "I'm not trying to be cocky, but something's wrong, something's going on."

Some blame Northridge's line, readjusted seemingly every week because of injuries, for Blue's problems. The Matadors, who last week started three freshmen on the line, have allowed 18 sacks.

"I don't care how good a running back is, he's not going to be productive if they don't open holes for him," said an NFL scout who's evaluating Blue and who requested anonymity. "[Blue] has talent and his size is the first thing that catches your eye."

The affable Blue points the finger and pulls it back in one motion.

"The O-line is critical to every running back," Blue said. "I'm no Barry Sanders, I can't be bouncing around on the field. I'm used to running to where the holes should be. But I guess you can make all kinds of excuses."

Blue gets more chances today to find those holes when the Matadors (3-1, 2-0 in Big Sky Conference play) host Montana (3-2, 1-1) in a 3:05 p.m. game.

But the Matadors, aware Montana's biggest weakness is rushing defense, plan to give other running backs more playing time. Junior Jaumal Bradley, a transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, and senior Geoff Snowden offer Northridge an added dimension. They have a combined 16 carries.

"We're going to let Melvin be the mainstay, but we got some other guys with quickness and speed, and we want to see what they do," said Keith Borges, Northridge's running backs coach. "We have to build Melvin's confidence. If he keeps the right state of mind, he'll be OK."

Blue is trying to do that, peppering a conversation with jokes about his battered body from hard hits by tacklers with unimpeded paths, poking fun at his big head and big mouth. He sports a well-worn blue Aggie cap fitted to his tightly cropped 7 7/8 head.

"I guess in Utah, everybody has bigger heads," Blue said with a laugh. "It's so discouraging. I can't find a fitted Northridge hat. They say, 'No, no hat for you.' "

Blue said he left Utah State to be closer to his family and to his 7-month-old daughter, Symphony, in Hawthorne.

He sometimes enjoyed the slow pace in Logan, where smog is a rumor and deer graze at your front door. But sometimes the sound of silence was too deafening.

"I came from an all-black neighborhood," Blue said. "I felt like a goldfish in a fishbowl."

Once at Northridge, with his Big West Conference credentials in hand and a potential pro career in the making, Blue waxed prophetically about the Matadors and his goals. Northridge, he said, would surprise in the Big Sky and he would rush for 3,000 yards.

He was right on half of the prediction, made to a reporter and read by his mother, Cora, who wasn't amused.

"The way [the reporter] asked me was, what would be my dream season, but he left that out," Blue said. "I didn't want to show my mother the story. She said I have a big mouth.

"My real goal was 2,000 yards. I always make my goals higher than I expect to get so I don't undershoot. I'm going to stop making goals. I retire from goal-setting. I don't want to eat my words anymore."

Or read them with a bad eye.

*

Montana (3-2, 1-1) vs. Cal State Northridge (3-1, 2-0)

What: Big Sky Conference game

When: Today, 3:05 p.m.

Where: North Campus Stadium

Fast fact: Matadors are 0-2 against Montana.

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