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Struggling Northridge Hosts Powerful Montana Today

October 14, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Big Sky Conference doesn't get any bigger than Montana, the backdrop for the 1947 A.B. Guthrie novel to which the conference owes its name.

It doesn't get any smaller--this season, at least--than Cal State Northridge.

The differences between Montana and Northridge, geographically and competitively, have never been more profound entering today's Big Sky matchup--some would say mismatch--at North Campus Stadium.

Montana (4-1, 2-0 in conference play), defending Big Sky champion and perennial power since the conference's inception in 1963, predictably is tied for first while making what probably will be its final visit to Northridge.

The last-place Matadors (1-4, 0-3), stumbling through their final season in the Big Sky, are scheduled to leave the conference after five seasons and compete as an independent in football next season.

For Northridge, two years removed from contending for a title, three sluggish performances against so-so conference foes is a good indication parting with the Big Sky is for the best. It probably will seem like an even better idea after a look at the North Campus scoreboard today at sundown.

The Grizzlies, with quarterback Drew Miller piloting the Big Sky's most prolific passing offense, might pound Northridge, ranked last in the Big Sky in defense.

Montana, ranked No. 6 in Division I-AA, has its sights set on an eighth consecutive playoff appearance under first-year Coach Joe Glenn, former coach of Division II Northern Colorado.

"Drew Miller is a really special player and impressive play-maker," Coach Jeff Kearin of Northridge said. "They've always been good on defense and offense overall, and their offensive line is very talented."

The Matadors, their season all but a wash, can only think upset--not only against the Grizzlies but their remaining Big Sky opponents.

"I still have every belief in the world we have the ability to play with these people," Kearin said. "I'm not backing off that. We just haven't been able to stop teams consistently. Our motivation is our last game with Montana in front of our home crowd, and to just start winning."

Northridge hasn't always been fodder for the Grizzlies. The Matadors defeated Montana, 21-7, in their last meeting at Northridge in 1998. Holding the season-ending tie-breaker against Montana, Northridge entered the final game at Idaho State needing a victory to win the Big Sky title.

It didn't happen. Northridge lost, 32-29, and the Grizzlies advanced to the I-AA playoffs.

Last season, Northridge was in the game for most of the first half in a 48-27 loss at Montana that featured a 402-yard, four-touchdown performance by Miller.

The Matadors' chances are strengthened because the Grizzlies' offense is hurting.

Top backs Yohance Humphery and Ben Drinkwalter are questionable because of injuries.

Miller, who leads the Big Sky with 1,706 yards passing and 12 touchdown passes, has experienced tendinitis in his throwing arm and played with the flu last week against Cal State Sacramento.

"Northridge is a lot better than their record shows," Miller said. "They have athletes and can flat-out beat you."

Marcus Brady of Northridge passed for 282 yards against Montana last season, completing 26 of 51 passes. Brady, a junior and three-year starter, has been at his best against the best, leading Northridge to a 5-3 record against nationally ranked teams.

"This is a chance for [Northridge] to turn their season around," Glenn said. "We always get everybody's best."

Miller, a transfer from Brigham Young, will be making his first visit to Northridge. For Miller and teammates, playing before a sparse crowd at Northridge will be an eye-opening experience. Rustic North Campus Stadium is a stark contrast to Washington Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, where sellout crowds regularly exceed 18,000.

"Montana is an incredible football program," said Miller, a native of Tacoma, Wash. "Obviously, with all the tradition, expectations are high. I love playing there. I love the outdoors, and [the Grizzlies] are the only game in town."

MATCHUP

CS NORTHRIDGE

vs. MONTANA

Today, 3:05 p.m.

North Campus Stadium

GAME DAY

* Matadors try to put miscues, bad plays aside and pull off upset. Page 16

* Cal State Northridge statistical leaders. Page 16

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