Sometimes it is not whether you win or lose, but how long you stay in the game.
There was another nonconference game for Cal State Fullerton Saturday, and another mismatch. This one, against 18th-ranked Wyoming, was perceived as one of such proportions that oddsmakers declined to set a line.
But the Titans, who by now have a handle on the delicate psychology of playing the big boys and maintaining more than a smidgen of self-respect, made a game of it--for a while, anyway.
In the end, Wyoming (5-0) took a 35-16 victory in front of 22,143 at War Memorial Stadium.
“We want to play with the best of them for as long as we can,” said Tim Byrnes, a sturdy if somewhat slow-footed fullback who had to play tailback for the first time because of injuries to three of the Titans’ four tailbacks. He responded with the best day of his career, catching 4 passes for 58 yards and rushing for 50 on 11 carries.
Fullerton (2-3), which even led, 3-0, at the outset, was right in this one in the third quarter, when it trailed Wyoming, 21-16, after quarterback Dan Speltz directed touchdown drives on consecutive possessions.
But the game began to slip away when Randy Welniak, the Cowboys’ double-threat quarterback, found Dabby Dawson wide open. Dawson eluded Sean Fernandes, who was late arriving, scored on a 70-yard pass play that stretched the lead to 28-16.
By Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy’s reckoning, the Titans were in it a bit longer, until about 10 minutes remained. That’s when Welniak struck deep again, this time with a pass to Tom Kilpatrick--wide open behind Chris Wright--that went for a 60-yard touchdown and made it 35-16.
“It was winnable until the last touchdown,” Murphy said.
After that, Murphy, looking ahead to a key Big West Conference game against Fresno State next week, started pulling players from a lineup already thinned by injuries.
It was too late for one key Fullerton player, wide receiver John Gibbs, who is almost certainly lost for the season after dislocating his knee when he was tackled on a punt return earlier in the fourth quarter.
Gibbs, who caught 2 passes for 28 yards and 1 touchdown, had been the Titans’ second leading receiver with 11 catches in the first four games.
Games of this sort have become rather routine for Fullerton, which has lost in the past two seasons to four top-20 teams--Louisiana State, Florida, West Virginia and now Wyoming.
But in contrast to the reaction after a 45-10 loss to West Virginia in the second game of the season, Fullerton players were clearly unsatisfied Saturday.
“They’re angry because they didn’t win,” Murphy said.
After the West Virginia game, Fullerton players seemed relieved simply to have had a good showing and to have avoided being humiliated, as they were in a 65-0 loss to Florida last year.
This time was different.
“I thought after the first couple of drives that we could win it,” said Speltz, who had by far his best day as a Titan, completing 16 of 27 passes for 244 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown pass to Rocky Palamara, who hauled in the overthrown ball one-handed and carried it in.
But despite marked improvement, the offense--"our source of consternation,” Murphy called it--once again had trouble at the goal line. In the second quarter, after getting a first-and-goal at the 6, Fullerton not only failed to score a touchdown, but failed to score at all.
Stan Lambert, who made a 41-yard field goal to give Fullerton the early lead, missed a 28-yarder, the third time this season he has missed within 30 yards.
“We need to get 7 when we’re down there,” Speltz said.
But Welniak was clearly the key to the game.
“Their quarterback killed us,” Murphy said.
In the early going, Wyoming was dominated by Fullerton’s defense, which did not allow a first down until well into the second quarter. But after that, Welniak became more of a running threat and built the victory on four big plays, including the two long touchdown passes and two open-field runs of his own that accounted for 55 yards of a 73-yard touchdown drive late in the first half.
“We decided we just had to get going,” said Welniak, who passed for 274 yards and ran for 50.
“He got more involved in the game,” Murphy said. “He broke containment on us a couple of times, and that hurt us.”
Fullerton’s defense, the backbone of this team during the first four games of the season, had some breakdowns, including having only 10 men on the field on a goal-line play in the first half. Wyoming scored its first touchdown on the play, taking a 7-3 lead.
Fullerton also gave up a handful of big plays. Of the 500 yards Wyoming amassed, 185 of them came on four plays--Welniak’s two long runs and the two touchdown passes.
“We just gave up the big play,” free safety Mike Schaffel said. “It wasn’t like they drove the ball up and down the field on us play after play. We knew we had to make them drive, but we gave up the big play.”
Though the play of Fullerton’s offensive line improved in comparison with last week, Dan Speltz was sacked six times--three of those by Mitch Donahue. . . . Linebacker Russ Oleyer led all Fullerton tacklers with seven, all unassisted. . . . One Laramie reporter asked Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy which team was better, West Virginia or Wyoming. Murphy, noting that he might play Wyoming again, demurred. But it seemed clear that he--and others--thought West Virginia is the better team. . . . One other who thinks that might be true: Wyoming Coach Paul Roach. “I think they probably are better,” he said. . . . Roach, 60, who coached Murphy, 49, when Murphy was a quarterback at North Dakota, complimented Fullerton’s game plan: “They exploited us with some formations we hadn’t seen. They had an excellent game plan. Defensively they were excellent. We were able to break some big ones on them, but it was tough going.”