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Northridge Faces Season Crossroads

College football: Matadors, who host Idaho State today, try to avoid becoming Big Sky Conference patsies.

September 30, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Gut-check time comes early this season for Cal State Northridge, a football team desperate to shed its collective roll around the middle.

Perhaps a reality check, too.

Northridge resumes its swan song season in the Big Sky Conference today at North Campus Stadium against Idaho State, which already has provided the Matadors with a cold slap in the face.

Two years ago, all that stood between Northridge and a Big Sky title was a victory in the season finale at Idaho State, a 2-8 team with a lame-duck coach fired during the season. The Matadors appeared to have both hands on the rainbow with 1:28 to play when Marcus Brady connected with Aaron Arnold for a 10-yard scoring pass and a 29-24 lead.

But the dream fizzled. Idaho State answered with a four-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a three-yard touchdown catch by DeRonn Finley with 32 seconds to play.

Felled from the Big Sky, the Matadors still can't seem to get up.

Four years after joining the nine-team Division I-AA conference with grandiose plans to build an on-campus stadium and elevate its football profile, Northridge (1-2, 0-1 in conference) suddenly is struggling to avoid going out as Big Sky bottom feeder.

"We need to win this game to stay afloat and so do they," Northridge Coach Jeff Kearin said. "I know I have my rose-colored glasses on, but a break here or there and all of a sudden either one of us could be right in the thick of it."

Northridge, banned from postseason play because of NCAA rules violations, entered the season with nothing to play for but pride. Now, it is a matter of maintaining self-respect.

Stinging from a second-half collapse in a 49-26 loss to Northern Arizona at North Campus two weeks ago, Northridge simply cannot afford another early season loss on its home field--especially against Idaho State (2-1, 1-1), which has lost 10 consecutive road games. Moreover, the Matadors face a short week in preparation for a game at Weber State on Thursday.

"This is the perfect time to say do or die," linebacker Cos Abercrombie said. "We can't let teams come in here and do that stuff to us. Some of the players on the team, I know they feel it. All we have to play for is a conference championship."

Idaho State, under second-year Coach Larry Lewis, is improved, although far from a conference power. The Bengals, coming off a victory over Cal State Sacramento, are capable of dealing Northridge another devastating blow.

"They look better than the team I've seen," Brady said. "Two losses [at home] would be big. We'd lose support from the fans. We've already lost one. If we can't win at home. . . ."

Then perhaps it's best Northridge is leaving the Big Sky.

Critics of Northridge's move to the Big Sky argued from the beginning that the Matadors didn't belong. Few Big Sky members are shedding tears over the impending departure of Northridge, which will compete as an independent next season.

Northridge is the ugly duckling of the Big Sky. The Matadors' stadium is vastly inferior than the others in the conference, their fans are fewer and their history is less storied than their conference counterparts.

Northridge has done little to strengthen its argument in the last two seasons.

The Matadors were 5-6 last season and 4-4 in the Big Sky, a respectable showing, considering off-the-field turmoil.

After a 2 1/2-month internal investigation, former coach Ron Ponciano was fired in July, 1999, and Kearin, a former assistant, was hired as an 11th-hour replacement. The coaching staff was further depleted by the departure of assistants Keith Borges and Craig Wall, whose departures were attributed to fallout from the investigation.

But after a tranquil off-season and resolution with the NCAA, the Matadors have remained in a fog.

Northridge has lost two in a row at home and five of six overall. True, the skid includes predictable lopsided losses on the road to I-A opponents Southern Methodist last season and Air Force this year. But Northridge isn't intimidating opponents of its own caliber.

The Matadors' four conference victories last season came against the Big Sky's bottom teams, although Northridge later was awarded a forfeit victory over Northern Arizona.

Northridge was 4-1 at North Campus, but had to come from behind to win three times, including a 41-27 victory over Idaho State and a 30-28 victory over Weber State on a last-minute touchdown pass by Brady.

This season, Northridge has hurt itself with turnovers, poor defense and a weak running game.

Northridge ranks near the bottom of the Big Sky in most statistical categories. In defense, the Matadors are dead last.

Question is, are the Matadors dead?

"We are going to concentrate on ourselves, cleaning up our act, continuing to improve our defense and getting ourselves into an offensive rhythm," Kearin said. "I'm embarrassed to say it, because we've made it a priority since last year and we haven't done it. In fact, it's gotten worse."

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