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SPORTS EXTRA / COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2000 | BIG SKY CONFERENCE

Northridge Looks for a Big Finish

August 26, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal State Northridge is going, going, soon to be gone from the Big Sky Conference.

But will parting be such sweet sorrow?

Second-year Coach Jeff Kearin hopes so.

"Our goal is to win the Big Sky championship and then be hugely disappointed," Kearin said. "We expect to be hugely disappointed."

Achieving the former will result in the latter for Northridge, banned from postseason play in 2000 because of NCAA sanctions stemming from rules violations the last few years. Next year, Northridge will join the predominantly California Big West Conference, and its football team will compete as an independent.

Not that anyone in the Big Sky expects the Matadors to go out on top. Roll over and play dead is more like it.

Northridge, despite a strong nucleus of returning players, is tabbed to finish tied for sixth in the nine-team conference in the Big Sky coaches' preseason poll.

Never mind the Matadors have never finished lower than fourth in four seasons in the Division I-AA Big Sky and came within a game of winning the conference title in 1998.

Never mind the Matadors were picked to finish eighth last season and seventh the year before.

Versatile Marcus Brady, among the Big Sky's marquee players, enters his third season at quarterback, having passed for more than 6,000 yards in his career. Drew Amerson, who led the Big Sky with 72 receptions, also returns. And there is no reason to suggest Northridge won't remain among the top offensive teams in the pass-happy Big Sky.

"I'm probably in the best shape of my life and we've improved," Brady said. "In general, we'll be better than we've ever been since I've been here."

Yet, for observers, the Matadors' impending departure seems to spell doom.

"It doesn't make much sense to me," Kearin said. "You talk to coaches and they have a lot of respect for our athleticism, but maybe they don't like the way we do business. We are so far off the beaten path of the conference and we're in such a different environment than all of them."

No question the parting of ways between Northridge and the Big Sky is for the best. No longer faced with a mandate from the Big Sky to build an on-campus stadium, financially strapped Northridge now can plot its athletic future more carefully.

The move also will help Northridge save money on travel expenses and comply with gender-equity requirements.

But for now, business at hand means going out with a bang.

"We have so many guys out who can play," Brady said. "The guys just want to play and have fun."

Here's a look at the rest of the Big Sky in projected order of finish:

MONTANA

* Coach: Joe Glenn (first season).

* 1999 Record: 9-3, 7-1 in Big Sky.

* The case for: Seventeen starters return for the defending champions, including Drew Miller, who led Division I-AA in passing efficiency (168.57). Glenn coached Northern Colorado to 11 consecutive winning seasons and two Division II national championships.

* The case against: The defense is hurting. Safety John Hefty (shoulder) is out for the season and defensive end Jeff Nikolaisen (knee) is sidelined indefinitely. Defensive back Vernon Smith is ineligible.

* If all breaks right: The Grizzlies win their fifth Big Sky title in six years.

* Worst-case scenario: Glenn's coaching success ends with leap to Division I-AA.

PORTLAND STATE

* Coach: Tim Walsh (eighth season).

* 1999 Record: 8-3, 6-2.

* The case for: Nineteen returning starters. Jimmy Blanchard has thrown 43 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in two seasons. Charles Dunn has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

* The case against: Questionable offensive line. Center Matt Hebebrand (fractured wrist) will sit out most of the season. John Andreas and Kris Wigger are practicing despite leg injuries.

* If all breaks right: Vikings whip Montana on Oct. 28 at Portland in game that will decide Big Sky title.

* Worst-case scenario: Temporary move from 30,000-seat Civic Stadium to tiny Hillsboro Stadium creates home-field disadvantage.

EASTERN WASHINGTON

* Coach: Paul Wulff (first season).

* 1999 Record: 7-4, 6-2.

* The case for: Ten defensive starters return. Linebackers Greg Belzer, Anthony Griffin and Brad Packer combined for 213 tackles. Defensive end Jeff Allen had 10 sacks.

* The case against: Fred Salanoa started only three games at quarterback before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Three all-conference linemen have graduated.

* If all breaks right: Wulff, offensive coordinator the last two seasons, transforms an anemic attack.

* Worst-case scenario: Eagles lose at Montana State against former coach Mike Kramer.

CAL STATE SACRAMENTO

* Coach: John Volek (sixth season).

* 1999 Record: 6-5, 3-5.

* The case for: Charles Roberts led the nation in rushing with 2,082 yards and is 2,030 yards shy of the NCAA career record for all divisions. Roberts rushed for an NCAA-record 409 yards against Idaho State.

* The case against: Three starters gone from from the Big Sky's best offensive line.

* If all breaks right: Roberts is unstoppable.

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