Cal State Fullerton wide receiver Rocky Palamara has seen enough storybook finishes this season to last a lifetime--especially the way the ending usually comes out for the Titans.
Saturday night at the Rubber Bowl turned out to be just another sad chapter in the Titans’ frustrating season.
Oh sure, Fullerton rallied to take a 14-12 lead late in the fourth quarter and had the University of Akron apparently pinned at its 8-yard line with 3:25 to play.
That, however, turned out only to be a teaser.
The Zips promptly drove 85 yards in 10 plays to set up Bob Dombroski’s 24-yard field goal with 1 second left that gave Akron a 15-14 victory over the Titans (3-6) before 4,049 wind-chilled fans.
“That’s been the story of our season--a lot of storybook finishes, but we aren’t the guys smiling in the happy ending,” Palamara said.
“Once again we finally got something positive going and then we turned around and gave it away at the end of the game.”
Palamara had been a key figure in the Titans’ offensive resurgence from a wretched first half.
The Titans had been held to 46 yards in total offense in the first half and, worse yet, contributed heavily to Akron’s 5-0 lead.
The Zips (4-5) had taken advantage of the Titans’ inability to move the ball to record a 33-yard field goal by Dombroski midway through the first quarter.
The next time Fullerton took care of Akron’s scoring.
Punter Jim Sirois chased a high snap into the end zone and, although he did prevent a touchdown when he fell on the ball for a safety, he suffered a separated shoulder and was lost for the game.
“Our defense did a great job keeping us in the game,” Titan quarterback Dan Speltz said, “and we finally got going in the second half.
“We went to a short passing game and forced their linebackers and strong safety to cover Rocky. He’s a great receiver and makes us go. He was too much for them.”
Palamara took advantage of the quickness mismatch and almost single-handedly brought the Titans’ offense to life with 10 receptions for 130 yards in the second half.
Tony Dill also contributed a circus catch of a 39-yard floater that helped set up Palamara’s 33-yard reception on the Titans’ first possession of the second half.
That gave the Titans their first score and the lead less than 2 minutes into the second half, and the idea of exploiting Palamara seemed so good the Titans went back to him for a conversion pass to take an 8-5 lead.
The Zips regained the lead when quarterback Mike Johnson hit flanker Leonard Thomas with a 10-yard pass to culminate an 80-yard scoring drive with 2:02 left in the third.
The Titans then threatened to do the unthinkable--grab a lead and hold it--in the fourth quarter.
The Speltz-to-Palamara combination, which accounted for 14 completions and 140 of Fullerton’s 211 passing yards for the game, helped set up 2 field goals by Stan Lambert.
Most importantly, the second kick--a 39-yard effort by the senior who also had to handle the punting duties--gave the Titans a 14-12 advantage with 3:31 remaining.
The situation looked even brighter when Akron’s deep return man, Ozzie Jackson, mishandled Lambert’s squib kickoff and was tackled at the Zips’ 8.
Johnson threw an incomplete pass on first down, but then came up with the play of the game.
“We called a sprint-out pass and I had a pass-run option,” said Johnson, who came to Akron from Mesa College after starting his college career at Arizona State.
“Their end, A.J. Jenkins, is a great player and was putting on a real hard, wide rush. Since I had a pass-run option, I decided to take advantage of the hole his outside rush created.”
It turned out to be the best decision Johnson could have made.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound California native broke up the middle and then to the outside before he was tackled at the Zips’ 45.
“Mike didn’t have a great game, but he’s our big-play man and came up with the big plays to get us a win,” said Gerry Faust, the former Notre Dame coach who is living out his exile from South Bend in Akron.
Johnson added a key, 7-yard third-down pass to Mike Singletary for a first down at the Titan 44 with 2:15 left.
The Zips, who held a 257-31 rushing advantage, then ground out two first downs and advanced to the Titan 7 before they called a timeout with 5 seconds left.
Dombroski, whose last-second field goal beat New Mexico, 30-28, easily converted his 38th career field goal in 55 attempts.
The Titans tried a wild pitch play from Mike Pringle to Shaun Dennis on the ensuing kickoff, but Dennis was nailed at the Fullerton 40 to end the game.
“That was athleticism on Johnson’s part to make that kind of play,” Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy said.
“We haven’t faced a quarterback like that--well, Major Harris would probably be that class, too--and we’d have preferred to see Johnson throw the ball rather than run.
“You can’t blame the defense--it’s been the backbone of the team all year and did a great job keeping us in the game.
“It was very unfortunate the way things worked out at the end, but that’s been the story of our season.”