When the Cal State Fullerton team boards the buses for Santa Ana Stadium to play Fresno State today, Titan players could almost ask this question out of habit: How long till we hit Bakersfield?
This will be only the third time in 10 years that Fresno has played at Fullerton. The other seven games--thanks to a television deal or a payoff in a couple of cases--have all been at the other end of a long bus ride into the San Joaquin Valley.
“We’re so used to playing at Fresno State, that almost seems like home,” said offensive tackle Mike Oliver, a fifth-year senior and one of the few Fullerton players who can recall playing Fresno at home.
The last time was in 1984, when an undefeated Fullerton team ranked 20th in the United Press International poll beat Fresno, 20-17, in a game at Santa Ana Stadium that drew 12,121--the only home sellout in Fullerton history.
Coincidentally or not, that was also the last time Fullerton beat Fresno.
Last year, Fullerton took itself out of the conference race with a 21-17 loss at Fresno.
“That’s strong motivation for them,” Fresno State Coach Jim Sweeney said. “They feel like they could have beat us (since 1984) if we played them at home. So we’ll find out about that.”
Today’s game probably won’t match the 1984 game in drama or attendance, but as this season goes, it’s an important one.
“Very important,” Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy said. “Big, big, big.”
It pits Fullerton (2-3, 2-0), the early leader in the Big West Conference race, against Fresno (3-2, 1-0), the preseason favorite and the only conference team with a winning record after five games.
“This is for the conference championship,” Murphy told his players this week.
Of course, he’ll tell them the same thing against Cal State Long Beach next week. This week, it could be true.
Fresno State, which has had a reputation as a passing team in recent years, has a surprisingly strong ground game this season. Fresno leads the conference in rushing with a 224.2-yard a game average, more than 100 yards a game better than last season’s average. Fullback Myron Jones and tailback Kelly Skipper, a four-year starter, are the leading rushers.
That ground game will face considerable resistance from the Fullerton defense, which has given up an average of only 3.3 yards on running plays.
At quarterback for Fresno State, Mark Barsotti, a redshirt freshman, has replaced Dave Telford, an interception-prone senior who started last season.
Fullerton, which has one of the best defenses in the conference, will face another of the most respected defensive units today.
That is cause for concern for the Titans, who have struggled offensively all season.
“We’re going to have to move the darn ball. No ifs, ands or buts,” Murphy said.
Fullerton spent extra time this week on its goal-line offense, which has failed repeatedly this season.
At times, the offensive line has been a main source of trouble.
But Oliver said the Titans are up to the challenge.
“We’ve played a few good defenses,” Oliver said. “I don’t think we’ve seen a weak one yet.”
The Fullerton offense will get a boost with the return of tailbacks Michael Moore (knee) and Michael Pringle (ankle), who had been out with injuries. Tailback Earl Williams (shoulder) is possible. Palente Henry, a wide receiver turned tailback, is a wide receiver again. . . . Tony Dill, Fullerton’s starting quarterback during part of the 1985 season, makes his debut as a starting wide receiver today, replacing John Gibbs, who was lost for the season after dislocating his knee in the Titans’ 35-16 loss to Wyoming. . . . Fresno State receiver Dwight Pickens, the Bulldogs’ second-leading receiver with 15 catches, was a favorite target of Fullerton quarterback Dan Speltz last season at El Camino College. . . . Fresno outside linebacker Tracy Rogers (ankle) is listed as doubtful. . . . Fullerton injury report: Harold Jones has been diagnosed with mononucleosis and is not expected to play. Nose guard Tommy Thompson might move to Jones’ outside linebacker position, and Alex Stewart might start at nose guard.