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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Matadors Are Put in Awkward Position

October 25, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — The linebacker was really a safety. Another linebacker was really a defensive end. The nose guard was really a linebacker. The offensive tackle was really a tight end.

Confused? Imagine the challenge of Cal State Northridge Coach Ron Ponciano, who has been moving around players like chess pieces as he tries to overcome injuries and depth problems.

Even with former third-stringers "playing their tails off," as Ponciano put it, the Matadors were beaten by Montana State, 32-26, Saturday before 6,124 at North Campus Stadium.

"We cannot point fingers," Ponciano said. "[Our] team is going to win a bunch of games. This team [eventually] will win a Big Sky championship."

With three conference games remaining, the Matadors (4-3, 3-2 in conference play) face a tough road. This was a must-win situation, and they can blame their defeat on three fourth-quarter interceptions by the Bobcats (5-2, 3-1) along with their inability to keep players healthy.

That Northridge had the ball on its own 32 with 1:22 left and a chance to win was a minor miracle in itself.

Credit goes to safety Vito Clemente, who did his best imitation of the California-Stanford five-lateral play from 1982. Except it took only one lateral to score. He recovered a fumble on the Northridge 14, ran 13 yards, then lateraled to linebacker Brennen Swanson, who went 73 yards for a touchdown to cut the Bobcats' lead to six points with 3:12 to play.

"Vito is really a warrior," line coach Aron Gideon said. "Every game he plays, he's going to do everything humanly possible to get us back in [the game]."

But Northridge had too much to overcome. Yes, tight end Ryan Schatz, at 245 pounds, performed admirably at left tackle. Converted safety Kenny Knoop made nine tackles at linebacker. Former defensive end Patrick Cwik made four tackles at linebacker.

But in the end, the Matadors got burned on big plays and did not have their best players on the field.

"The kids battled hard, but we are thin on both sides of the ball," Gideon said. "It's part of the program we need to make the most strides in."

Free safety Jeremy Golden, playing with a broken knuckle and sacrificing his body repeatedly to help his team, was feeling the frustration of letting an opportunity to move into first place in the Big Sky slip away.

"It hurts when players go down, but I have faith in whomever comes in," said Golden, a sophomore from Westlake High. "[Montana State] came up with big plays. It was a fight to the end. We're going to keep working hard. No one is going to roll over us."

Ponciano, in his first season as coach, said he is redshirting 40 players, something Northridge has never done. Several could have helped Saturday, but Ponciano won't make excuses.

"'I guarantee you that the football team that left the locker room is going to win a whole lot of games before they graduate," he said.

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