While dozens of college football teams across the country were playing Saturday afternoon with thoughts of postseason appearances, Cal State Fullerton was beating the holiday rush and playing an imaginary bowl game of its own.
Call it the inaugural Novocain Bowl, because, for the Titans, all that was left of 1986 was a chance to deaden the pain of bruised egos and battered self-esteems.
It took every breath of offense they had left--and virtually every player who could run onto the field without crutches or a cane--but the Titans accomplished what they set out to do. They took some of the sting out of an otherwise painful season by finishing it with a victory.
With exactly one minute remaining in Fullerton's season, senior running back Rick Calhoun crossed the goal line from 12 yards out, and quarterback Ronnie Barber threw to Todd White for a two-point conversion that gave the Titans a 39-38 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. victory over the University of the Pacific in front of 2,200 in Pacific Memorial Stadium.
By game's end, Fullerton had a running back (Keith Bowman) playing defensive back, a nose guard (Bill Windhorn) playing inside linebacker and several players on the sidelines in search of ice packs and Ace bandages.
Calhoun stayed healthy, though, and used the game to make one more impassioned plea for pro scouts to overlook the fact that he stands only 5-feet 8-inches tall. He rushed for 228 yards in 21 carries, including a stirring 76-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that was the longest of his career and the fourth-longest scoring run in Fullerton history. He had a nine-yard reception and carried 5 times for 27 yards on the winning drive. And he returned two kickoffs for 68 yards.
Statistically, it was the best game of Calhoun's productive career. But it was only a drop in the statistical bucket in a game in which both teams were rendered virtually defenseless.
The teams compiled 1,164 yards in total offense (619 for Pacific and 545 for Fullerton). Pacific's wishbone offense produced 434 yards rushing. Barber had his best game of the season, completing 18 of 31 passes for 233 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions.
Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy said he was convinced that the last team to have the ball would win, and he came closer than he would have liked to being right. Pacific frantically moved the ball to the Fullerton 28 before Ken Norgaard's 45-yard field-goal attempt fell short and wide to the left with three seconds to play. Barber fell on the ball on the game's final play and the Titans were able to celebrate their third victory against nine losses and the fact that they had narrowly escaped becoming the team with the worst record in Fullerton history.
They needed a 98-yard, 16-play drive that consumed 6:21. Pacific took a 38-31 lead with 7:29 to play on a nine-yard touchdown run by Tim Richardson. On the ensuing kickoff, Fullerton reached into Murphy's considerable bag of tricks--with disastrous results. White, who would later find sweet redemption as the receiver of the winning two-point conversion, fielded the kick a yard deep in the Fullerton end zone and began to return it. Before he reached the five-yard line, he stopped and attempted to lateral the ball across field to Tracey Pierce. The ball went over Pierce's head and out of bounds at the four. Murphy couldn't understand it. The play had looked so good in practice. "Yeah, against our own people, it worked like a charm," he said.
A penalty moved the ball back to the two and left 98 yards between the Titans and a chance at victory.
Perhaps Pacific Coach Bob Cope should have walked out then. He had certainly seen this ending before. Utah State drove 97 yards in the waning moments of last Saturday's game to beat the Tigers, 14-10. Pacific is 4-6 overall, and in five of those losses the decisive points were scored in the last three minutes.
"I've never gone through a season like this . . . never," Cope said. "Nobody should take the football and go 98 yards in that situation. We needed to make one big play in that drive, and we could never quite make it."
Calhoun's touchdown run cut Pacific's lead to 38-37. Murphy didn't hesitate to keep his offense on the field for a two-point attempt. Barber used a timeout and joined Murphy as he squatted near the Fullerton sideline and contemplated a play selection. White wasn't the primary receiver on the winning play. He wasn't the secondary receiver, either. "It was going to (John) Gibbs, Calhoun or White, in that order, with the option for (Barber) to run it," Murphy said.
But White was the one to get open, slanting across the back of the end zone. "Ronnie and I made eye contact and as soon as he saw me he let it go," White said. "It was a perfect pass. All I had to do was react."
White, a junior, finished with 5 receptions for 87 yards. Gibbs, a sophomore, caught 6 passes for 94 yards, including touchdown receptions of 5 and 19 yards in the first half. Fullerton had pro prospects for wide receivers in 1985. This season's group was young and unproven, but didn't look it against the Tigers. Said White: "Today, we evolved."
Both receivers will return next season feeling better about themselves. Such therapy was about all the Titans could hope for from Saturday's game.