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Un of a Kind

Occidental isn't USC, but the Division III school with no athletic scholarships has something in common with the powerful Trojans -- a perfect season

November 09, 2005|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

The final seconds of yet another victory ticked away, and Andy Collins, quarterback of one of the two remaining undefeated college football teams in Los Angeles, reached beneath the play list on his wristband.

Tucked there for the entire game was a piece of sheet music.

Collins unfolded it, and headed across the field, holding up the lyrics for his teammates as they laughed and sang to a small gathering of homecoming fans.

Occidental Glorious

O'er her foes victorious

Be her praise uproarious!

Occidental Fair

A feel-good football story has unfolded amid the red-tiled roofs of the Occidental campus, only a dozen miles from the Coliseum and USC, the home of college football's two-time reigning champion.

The 1,900-student liberal arts school on an Eagle Rock hillside has been fielding a football team since 1894, 35 years before the USC-UCLA rivalry was born. Its 1957 team spawned Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1996, and Jim Mora, a former NFL coach, both of whom returned to Patterson Field for a reunion Friday night.

And with 8-0 Oxy trying to complete only the sixth undefeated season in its history, someone decided it was high time the players learned to sing the alma mater again.

"They taught us Thursday night at practice," Collins said. "It's for camaraderie with the alumni."

Dale Widolff, the Occidental coach, laughed about Collins' crib sheet.

"If you'd heard him sing Thursday, you'd have known he needed it," Widolff said.

Occidental football is so far from the big time and "ESPN GameDay" that even high school teams get more coverage and draw more fans than the 1,800 or so who turned out on a fall afternoon for Saturday's 57-36 victory over La Verne.

When Sports Illustrated did an article last month on then-undefeated UCLA, "the other team in town," the other other team in town barely batted an eye.

"We're Division III. We expect that," linebacker Mike Bryant said. "I think we need to be mentioned a little bit, though. We work just as hard."

Some of them work a bit harder, during games.

Bryant is a two-time defensive player of the year in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

He also kicks off.

Caleb Small, a wide receiver and defensive back, plays both ways -- and he doesn't just dabble.

Against Redlands last month, he played all 78 plays on offense and all 80 on defense, leaving the field once, on a special-teams play.

In a night's work, Small caught six passes for 59 yards and a 24-yard touchdown during the game, was second on the team with 6 1/2 tackles, and returned a punt for 19 yards.

"Our three top safeties have had injuries," Widolff said. "We have about 65 kids. It's not like we've got a million guys and go two-deep or three-deep."

The offensive star of an explosive team averaging 40.5 points and 474 yards a game is Collins, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound quarterback who started his career in the Pacific 10 Conference at Oregon, then found his way down a winding road to Eagle Rock.

"Do you have about two hours to hear the whole story?" he said.

"I went there to play quarterback, and they wanted me to play defense."

He left after one season, and after a brief flirtation with Division I-AA Eastern Washington, took a year off from football at Yakima Valley Community College, near his hometown of Zillah, Wash.

Sifting through all the recruiting letters he received in high school, he decided he wanted to go to a smaller, academically oriented school and called Occidental.

It was a piece of luck for Oxy, but it was luck by design.

"A big part of our challenge is finding very strong academic students, so we contact every high school basically in the western United States and subscribe to recruiting services and send out about 2,000 letters," Widolff said.

"By the time we got going, it was clear he was going to be a Division I guy. But when he went back through his recruiting materials, he came back to our stuff and basically contacted us."

That's how a Division I-caliber quarterback whose passing ability and penchant for pulling down the ball and running fits Widolff's spread offense so well ended up at Occidental.

"We've had some great players," said Widolff, in his 24th year as coach. "Vance Mueller played for the Raiders and had an NFL career. But to get a guy who was a Pac-10 player, no, that doesn't happen often."

With Collins at quarterback, Occidental went 10-2 last season, winning two games in the NCAA Division III playoffs to reach the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion Linfield, 56-27.

This season, the efficient Collins has passed for an average of 275 yards a game with 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions, completing 66% of his passes. The junior quarterback also averages almost 34 yards a game rushing.

In a game against Pomona-Pitzer, Collins accounted for six touchdowns, two rushing and four passing.

He jokes that he'd like to do double-duty by returning kicks or something.

"They won't let me," he said.

They will, however, let his schoolwork come first.

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