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Northridge Shows Heart, Has It Broken

College football: Matadors' big plays force powerful Montana to rally without injured Miller for 34-30 victory.

October 15, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — The bigger they come, the better Cal State Northridge seems to play.

That didn't prevent the Matadors from experiencing their biggest heartbreak of the season Saturday, a 34-30 Big Sky Conference loss to first-place Montana before 3,072 at North Campus Stadium.

Inspired by its toughest challenge of the season, Northridge (1-5, 0-4 in conference play) came up with big scoring plays--a 95-yard kickoff return by Julien Sells, an 83-yard interception return by Travis Campbell and a 50-yard fumble return by Lewis Blanton.

The Matadors' defense stood tall, limiting Montana (5-1, 3-0) to one yard rushing, recording a season-high six sacks and knocking quarterback Drew Miller out of the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury.

But it was the Grizzlies who came out on top, coming from behind twice in the second half and taking the lead for good on a one-yard sneak by quarterback John Edwards with 1:50 to play.

The Matadors threw a scare into Montana in the final minute when Marcus Brady narrowly missed connecting on a deep pass to D.J. Hackett. On the next play, Brady's fourth-down pass at midfield was batted down with 39 seconds to play.

"Everybody's hurting right now," said Campbell, who has returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season. "We knew we could compete with them and we showed that. I've never been more proud of this team."

Brady, who completed 20 of 31 passes for 125 yards and no interceptions, said the Matadors didn't lack confidence against Montana, Big Sky champion five of the last seven years.

"We have a lot of talent on this team," Brady said. "We just haven't been able to put it all together for one game."

Few figured Northridge, coming off a pitiful performance against Weber State, to even come close to the Grizzlies.

But the Matadors pressured Miller, the Big Sky's passing leader, and his receivers from the start after taking a 7-0 lead on a five-yard scoring pass from Brady to Drew Amerson.

Northridge snapped a 17-17 tie in the second quarter when Blanton, following Martin Bacon's crushing tackle after Miller's completion to T.J. Oelkers, snared a fumble in the air and raced untouched to the end zone.

Moments later, Montana went three and out and Miller was headed to the sideline for good after absorbing a hit from linebacker Isaac Gardner. Two plays earlier, Miller was grabbed by the jersey and sacked by defensive tackle Erik Gardner, Isaac's brother, for a nine-yard loss.

"We did [Saturday] what I know we are capable of doing," Coach Jeff Kearin of Northridge said. "Our defense rose to the occasion against one of the best offenses in the country."

Miller completed 19 of 27 passes for 230 yards, including a 27-yard pass to Tanner Hancock to tie the score, 7-7, late in the first quarter.

After the game, Miller, his right shoulder wrapped in ice, credited the Matadors with several punishing hits.

"We knew that they were going to give us their best," Miller said. "From what we had seen on films, they were in all of their games."

Edwards, a sophomore and heir apparent to the starting job, maintained his composure, driving Montana 80 yards in seven plays on his first series and capping the drive with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Hancock with four seconds left in the half.

The drive began after Brady, scrambling on second and goal, fumbled near the goal line and the ball skidded out of the end zone for a touchback.

Northridge players and coaches pointed to that play--which would have given the Matadors a two-touchdown advantage--as a turning point. The ball squirted from Brady's grasp before he tumbled into the end zone.

"I thought I was in," Brady said. "But I shouldn't have coughed up the ball. I was just trying to stretch it."

Chris Snyder's 29-yard field goal gave the Grizzlies their first lead, 27-24, on their first possession of the second half. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 206 yards.

Edwards was driving Montana toward another score on its next possession when his overthrown pass was snared by Campbell at the Northridge 17.

*

INSIDE

* Erik and Isaac Gardner combined for three sacks in loss. Page 18

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