On a Senior Recognition Day that began with most of the seniors recognizable on the bench, Cal State Fullerton ended its season Saturday afternoon with a 23-13 victory over Utah State, clinching second place in the Big West Conference.
There was no pregame talk by Coach Gene Murphy, no traditional introduction of the seniors and very few seniors in the starting lineup--all the result of an ill-conceived and ill-received boycott of Thursday’s practice by a group of seniors who say they only wanted to start a little tradition, but instead started a rift with Murphy.
“We all wanted to start a tradition,” senior defensive end A.J. Jenkins said. “It wasn’t a very good idea.”
Or as junior wide receiver Rocky Palamara put it, “If they were going to do it, they should have done it during bye week. That would have been a little more intelligent.”
Fullerton held a 14-13 halftime lead in front of 2,119 at Santa Ana Stadium and then held the Aggies scoreless, even though Utah State had the ball for all but about 5 minutes in the second half.
And, as it turned out, most of the 17 seniors who skipped practice found their way into the game fairly quickly.
“We sat them down,” Murphy said. “We knew they were going to play. But the inmates do not run the asylum.”
The victory earned Fullerton sole possession of second place in the conference, a distinction that sounds a bit more impressive than it is. Fresno State, which went undefeated in the Big West, is the only conference team with a winning overall record.
“Second is better than last,” Jenkins said.
“It’s better than third, fourth or fifth,” Murphy offered.
The Titans, who compiled a 5-2 conference record, finished 5-6 overall and have not had a winning season since 1985.
Utah State finished 4-7 and 4-3.
The Aggies’ standout receiver, Kendal Smith, was held to 2 catches for 23 yards, but that was still enough to break the conference career record for receiving yardage, set by Henry Ellard at Fresno State. Smith’s final mark of 2,952 is 5 yards better than Ellard’s.
Fullerton’s Dan Speltz was only 3 yards short of passing for 300 yards for the second week in a row, completing 15 of 28 passes for 297 yards and 3 touchdowns with 1 interception. He threw for 325 last week against San Jose State.
Palamara caught 8 passes for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns, one of them a 59-yard play in the second half on which Palamara caught a pass between two defenders, then faked out one and cut to the inside of the other for the final 20 yards.
During the second half, in which Utah State had the ball for almost 25 minutes, Fullerton stopped the Aggies repeatedly.
Trailing, 20-13, Utah State drove to a first-and-goal situation at the 2 early in the fourth quarter after quarterback Brent Snyder connected with Tracey Jenkins for 31 yards.
But the Aggies were unable to score on five plays--a Fullerton penalty gave them an extra play--finally failing when James Young deflected a fourth-down pass meant for Smith in the end zone.
“It was man coverage and it was make-it-or-break-it time,” Young said.
Another fourth-quarter drive ended when Sean Fernandes intercepted Snyder at the Fullerton 26-yard line.
Stan Lambert added the final points for Fullerton on a 36-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining.
Fullerton scored first-half touchdowns on passes from Speltz to J.J. Celestine and Palamara, but only led, 14-13, at the half after giving the Aggies a bit of help.
Utah State’s Russ Moody kicked a 27-yard field goal after Steve Davis recovered a fumble by Speltz at the Fullerton 13. A 95-yard drive that ended in a Snyder-to-Patrick Newman touchdown pass was revived by a penalty against the Titans when Fullerton had too many men on the field for an Aggie punt.
For the Titans, Saturday’s victory caused no great celebration.
“It would have been more positive if our week of preparation had ended in a positive manner,” Murphy said. “In a couple of weeks, we’ll say we finished in undisputed second place and we can be proud of that.”
Four Fullerton seniors did not participate in the skip-practice day--offensive linemen Matt Fitts, Mike Oliver and Kevin Bernell and defensive back Tony Williams. The ones who did said Saturday that they were sorry.
“I want to tell all the coaches I’m sorry and it wasn’t anything personal,” Jenkins said.
“We felt like we were prepared and could miss a day. We told them we were sorry,” said linebacker Jerry Leggett.
After calling off Thursday’s practice after about 30 minutes, Murphy only held a team meeting Friday. He said he will not discuss the skipped practice with the players until Monday.
Mark it up as another attempt at tradition at Fullerton . . . and another failure.