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Moving forward

Occidental must replace quarterback Collins, who helped guide the team to a 26-game regular-season win streak

September 01, 2007|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Occidental has eight starters returning to its offense this season, but it seems all anyone wants to talk about is who isn't back: quarterback Andy Collins.

Collins was the three-time Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference offensive player of the year, a second-team Division III All-American, and led the Tigers to three consecutive conference titles and a 26-game regular-season win streak.

So, inquiring minds want to know if Occidental can continue that level of success now that Collins has graduated.

"Well, you aren't going to replace a guy like that," Coach Dale Widolff said. "We had a veteran quarterback and a three-year starter who was awfully good. But I'm confident we still have talent at quarterback and if we get adequate play from that position, we'll still be a very good offensive team."

The problem is that Widolff hasn't settled yet on a quarterback. The competition is among Justin Goltz, Scott Saunders and Danny Southwick.

Whoever wins the job will have some big cleats to fill. Collins last season led the SCIAC with 2,189 yards passing and 26 touchdowns. Under his guidance, Occidental averaged 39.2 points a game -- almost 10 points more than any other team in the conference.

Collins was invited to tryouts with the NFL's New York Giants and the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes, and while he didn't make either team, that alone was quite an accomplishment for a Division III quarterback.

Keeping the team on top has become a rallying cry for the players, who have heard all the questions about whether they can keep winning without Collins.

"Definitely that is the question around the conference," Saunders said. "Can we do it without Andy? I think every player on this team wants to prove that we can."

To do so, the Tigers will probably look more to senior running back Matt Andersen, an all-conference selection last season when he was second in the SCIAC with 668 yards rushing. He also added 224 yards receiving and led the league with 17 touchdowns.

"It's a huge loss not having Andy," Andersen said. "But one person doesn't make the entire team. People think that we only had a great quarterback, and that's true, we did. But we also had good receivers, running backs, linemen and defense. We're looking forward to proving that we didn't just revolve around Andy."

Widolff said he's telling this year's quarterbacks not to try to be Collins or match what he did on the field.

"They all know they're not [Collins]," Widolff said. "He was easily the best athlete on the team. I don't think these guys think of themselves as the best athlete on the team. They're excited to see if they can step in there, but I don't think any of them are trying to emulate him."

Replacing Collins will be only part of the challenge for the winner of the quarterback competition. Keeping alive the win streak is another. This year's senior class has not lost a regular-season game since starting at Occidental.

"It's hard not to think about that," Andersen said. "For sure, we don't want to lose. We want to keep the streak going, but we can't think about that when the games start."

The Tigers are also concerned with another streak: Consecutive postseason losses. They went to the Division III quarterfinals in 2004, but have lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

Those performances have fueled talk around the nation that the SCIAC is a weak conference, and Occidental players are itching for the chance to prove that wrong.

"People say winning our conference doesn't mean anything," Goltz said. "I'd say getting past the first couple of rounds of the playoffs is a huge goal for us."

With Andersen back and running behind an offensive line that returns four starters, including 2006 all-conference selection Chris Kyles, the Tigers are again favored to win the SCIAC and qualify for the playoffs.

But there are holes to fill other than at quarterback. Widolff is equally concerned with the defense, which must replace two defensive backs, two linemen and two linebackers, including leading tackler Joe Zackary.

"That's the funny thing," Widolff said. "We've lost more players on defense, but everybody is talking about our quarterback."

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peter.yoon@latimes.com

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