New Mexico State Coach Mike Knoll says his hands shake with excitement when he holds the films of the Aggies’ upset victory over Cal State Fullerton here 2 years ago.
That game was New Mexico State’s only conference victory since joining the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.--now the Big West--in 1984. It also marked the last time that Knoll, now in his third year, was a .500 coach. The record then was 1-1.
Imagine then, the excitement Knoll and the Aggies felt Saturday night, when they trailed Fullerton, 7-3, going into the fourth quarter at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
But Fullerton’s offense, inept for much of the game--and much of the season--came through and carried the Titans to a 24-3 victory in front of 7,397.
“A win’s a win,” Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy said.
Fullerton (3-5, 3-2) broke a 3-game losing streak, and avoided a loss that would have been even more embarrassing than last week’s loss to Cal State Long Beach, a team that had lost 9 consecutive games coming in.
The loss was New Mexico State’s 18th consecutive in the conference and leaves the Aggies with a 1-6 record this season.
But 24 points? Cal State Fullerton?
This game marked Fullerton’s highest point production of the year, bettering the previous high in the 24-22 loss to Long Beach.
It also marked the first time this season the Titans have scored more than two touchdowns.
Let’s just say the company Fullerton was keeping didn’t hurt.
The team with the offense whose own coaches have termed “inept,” “ugly,” and even “lousy,” this season still was nothing to inspire fear.
Three times, the Titans drove to within 10 yards of the goal line and not only failed to score touchdowns, but missed field-goal attempts as well.
Two of those drives were in the first half, and the Titans only led, 7-0, on a 6-yard run by Michael Moore, who finished with 84 yards in 25 carries.
“It should have been 17-0 at the half,” Murphy said. “We knew we had to play harder.”
New Mexico State avoided being shut out when Dat Ly kicked a 22-yard field goal in the third quarter, his school-record ninth consecutive field goal without a miss.
But, oh, those first-and-goals for the Titans.
In the first half, after Fullerton linebacker Russ Oleyer intercepted a pass by Mike Reneau at the Aggie 32, Titan quarterback Dan Speltz found Mark Hill on a 19-yard pass that put the ball at the 9. Two plays later, Speltz was sacked. But he came back with a pass to Hill in the end zone--one that was called back because of holding.
Another sack and Stan Lambert came on to try a 45-yard field goal, which he missed.
Later in the half, after getting a first down at the 7, Fullerton gained three yards on two running plays and then Speltz overthrew a third-down pass. Worse, a bad snap caused Lambert to miss a 21-yard field-goal attempt.
Wouldn’t you know it, in the third quarter, Speltz’ 18-yard pass to Moore gave Fullerton another first-and-goal, this one at the 10.
What did that make Murphy feel like?
“Rolaids,” Murphy said. “Anxiety.”
Two plays, on third down at the 6, Speltz was sacked. Lambert, whose accuracy seems inverse to the degree of difficulty, missed a 25-yarder.
But Speltz, who completed 11 of 19 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, finally found a way to get the ball across the line.
In the fourth quarter, after getting a first-and-goal at the 2 thanks to a 14-yard run by Moore, Fullerton failed to score on its first two plays. But Speltz finally carried in from the 1 on third down, and Fullerton led, 14-3.
“At least in the fourth quarter we did what we needed to do,” said Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator. “We kept going in and stopping ourselves, but heck, we finally got in in there. Maybe we made some progress.”
Lambert got one more chance, and nailed a 39-yarder, making it 17-3.
Speltz provided the final touchdown when he hit Rocky Palamara with a 15-yard touchdown pass set up by Chris Wright’s interception return to the 6.
Knoll, for his part, complimented the Fullerton defense, perhaps not wanting to belabor the obvious about the offense, no matter how many points the Titans scored.
“That’s the finest defense we’ve seen this year,” he said. “They’re very aggressive.”
Murphy particularly praised tackle Alex Stewart and outside linebacker Tommy Thompson, who, along with A.J. Jenkins, each had two sacks.
The harried Aggie quarterbacks, Reneau and Phil Vinson, put a few passes out there for the taking and Fullerton made 5 interceptions.