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COLLEGE FOOTBALL REVIEW : A Season of Discontent at Northridge : Burt, Matadors Aren’t Satisfied Despite One of the Best Records in School History

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Cal State Northridge had just defeated Cal State Sacramento, 21-16, and the players, several of whom had just completed their last college game, were accepting congratulations of friends, family and each other.

They smiled and laughed, but their eyes showed the disappointment the rest of their expressions tried to veil.

The Matadors had just completed a 7-4 season, yet as they shook hands, many also shook their heads.

The scene served as the perfect gauge to measure how much the Northridge football program has grown in the past two years.

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In 26 years of CSUN football, only three teams had records better than 7-4. Still, the overriding feeling was that this team should have done better. It was more talented, or at least more experienced at every position, than the one that had come within seconds of winning the Western Football Conference championship and a berth in the Division II playoffs in 1986.

All of which led to some rather imaginative excuses for another second-place finish.

The most original was by Coach Bob Burt. He said Northridge dropped from its schedule St. Mary’s, a mediocre Division II team, in favor of Division I-AA power Boise State to start the season and bore the consequences over the next 10 weeks.

“If we play St. Mary’s, we open 5-0 and are healthier,” said Burt, who is 15-7 in his two seasons as coach.

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This argument makes sense until one checks the schedule. Northridge played San Francisco State, Cal State Hayward, Cal State Sonoma and Cal Lutheran the next four weeks. Burt often refers to the “Little Sisters of the Poor.” These were the teams he was talking about. Sonoma was the only team that finished with a winning record.

Let’s face it, there was plenty of time to lick those wounds and cheer up about being only 4-1. What really smarted was what happened the next five weeks when the Matadors collapsed against a lineup that could hardly be described as intimidating.

Northridge lost to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 21-20, in the sixth game of the season in a performance that mirrored its season. The Matadors played masterfully for three quarters and horrendously the rest of the way, blowing a 20-7 lead.

Two weeks later, they were outgained by a 4-1 margin in the rain and mud at North Campus Stadium, but they held on to defeat Santa Clara, 7-6, on an 85-yard kickoff return by Albert Fann. A 28-0 loss to UC Davis followed; the Aggies had lost to San Luis Obispo, 41-0, earlier in the season.

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Portland State, ranked third in Division II, was next and the Matadors lost again, 38-22, despite playing fairly well. Portland State and Boise State, which defeated CSUN, 30-0, to open the season, might have been the only teams the Matadors played that had better talent.

Which leads to the most profound excuse. That Northridge had too much talent.

Dester Stowers, a senior defensive tackle who is not short on ability himself, tried to explain this line of thinking after the Portland State game.

“Sometimes we try and do too much,” he said. “When you have so much ability sometimes it’s hard to be disciplined. You see your buddy over there and try to help him out and you end up getting beat yourself.”

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Peculiarly, this phenomenon never happened at home. Northridge was 6-0 in the friendly confines of North Campus Stadium, 1-4 in away games. “We played the four best teams on our schedule all on the road,” Burt lamented.

Possibly it just seemed that way.

Before the season is deemed a failure, however, it should be taken in perspective.

This is only the third time in school history that the Matadors have had back-to-back winning seasons. The first time, Northridge went 6-4 in 1967, then 5-4 the following season. In 1976, Jack Elway led the Matadors to an 8-3 record in his first season as coach. The following season, the Matadors were 7-3-1.

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Northridge never has had three consecutive winning seasons. That should change next season.

So, forget the excuses.

Three of the four teams CSUN lost to this season play at North Campus Stadium next fall. There will not be a rematch with Boise State, but Idaho State, the replacement, will be the Matadors’ third opponent instead of their first.

Northridge will not have as many experienced players--especially on defense--but will be deep at the skill positions. Fann, who led the team with 822 yards rushing, has three more years. Lance Harper, another breakaway threat, also will return to the backfield along with redshirt Greg Walker, a 5-10, 190-pound transfer from Cal State Long Beach who has drawn raves from Burt.

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“He probably would have been the second-best back in the conference,” Burt said, noting that Fann is his choice as the best. “In practice, he played the other team’s best back and he was better than all of them. Our guys said hitting him was like hitting a brick.”

Quarterback Rob Huffman, who showed he could throw effectively when not frequently faced with third-and-long situations, will return along with wide receiver Keith Wright, who is perhaps the WFC’s best deep threat.

Wright had 26 catches this season, including 10 for touchdowns. “Next season,” Burt said, “we’ll throw him 60 and he’ll have 30.

The kicking game is set with punter Trent Morgan and placekicker Abo Velasco. There are some major voids to fill, however, most notably at tight end, linebacker, safety and on both lines.

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Burt said the Matadors will fill those voids immediately, securing junior college transfers.

“We may sign 20 of them,” Burt said, “if that’s what it takes.”


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