The opponent won’t be as physically imposing as the past two, but Cal State Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy still expects the Titans to come out of today’s game against Akron with their share of bumps and bruises.
Not so much because the Zips can apply the kind of punishment that Southeastern Conference bullies Auburn and Mississippi State did the past two weeks, but because Akron plays its games in the Rubber Bowl, which has a very unforgiving artificial surface.
“The turf there is very hard and that concerns me,” said Murphy, whose Titans lost at Akron, 15-14, in 1988. “It’s like used 1947 Firestone tires.
“It takes an additional 24 hours to recuperate when you play on Astroturf. You just get more beat up, more contusions, more scrapes, and your body is sore.”
No, an artificial surface isn’t what the doctor would have ordered for Fullerton, which has several players recovering from injuries incurred at Auburn and Mississippi State.
But Akron might be. For the first time since Fullerton’s season opener against Sonoma State, the Titans will face a team with which they match up well.
“Not to be demeaning to them, but physically, they’re not on the level of Auburn and Mississippi State,” Murphy said. “They have skill, but not the kind of skilled players we’ve seen the last two games.”
With a Big West Conference opener at Fresno State next week, Murphy believes today’s game will give the Titans a good idea of how they’ll fare in conference play.
Murphy considers Akron, an independent playing its fourth season at the Division I-A level, to be on a par with better Big West teams. If the Titans defeat the Zips, Murphy thinks Fullerton will do well in the conference.
“The Zips will be our sounding board,” Murphy said.
Akron is 2-0-1, but Gerry Faust, the Zips’ coach who spent five years (1981-85) at Notre Dame, is quick to point out that victories over Illinois State (17-7) and Kent State (38-10) and a tie with Central Michigan (14-14) are nothing to stand up and shout about.
“We haven’t played the caliber of competition Fullerton has by a long shot, but we’re getting better,” Faust said.
The Zips are a run-oriented team behind tailbacks Doug Lewis, who has rushed for 232 yards and three touchdowns, and Marcus Reliford, who has rushed for 216 yards and a touchdown.
Akron has averaged 54 rushing attempts and 22 passes a game, but quarterback Jeff Sweitzer has been efficient when the Zips elect to throw, completing 34 of 66 attempts for 382 yards and four touchdowns.
“I guess we’re more of a running team, but we like throwing the ball,” Faust said. “We’ll try to take what the defense gives us.”
That means the Zips will probably throw a little more today. Fullerton has been generous to opposing quarterbacks, allowing 842 passing yards in three games. The Titans have had success against the run, allowing an average of 100 yards rushing a game.
Opponents have taken advantage of a depleted Fullerton secondary, which lost all-conference cornerback Terry Tramble (broken forearm) two weeks ago and played last week without starting cornerback Nuygen Pendleton (sprained ankle), who will return today.
And the Titans haven’t even reached the toughest part of their schedule when it comes to pass defense.
“You’re talking about two teams (Auburn and Mississippi State) who are not sophisticated in terms of throwing the football,” Murphy said. “We haven’t even touched our conference yet, and those teams have much more sophisticated passing schemes.”
Faust, however, doesn’t necessarily see Fullerton’s secondary as a weak spot.
“Remember, they played against some great skilled athletes the last two weeks,” Faust said. “We have some good players, but not like Auburn and Mississippi State.”
Akron does have one Southeastern Conference-caliber player in 6-foot-3, 240-pound inside linebacker John Clark, the nation’s only junior on the watch list for the Dick Butkus Award, which is given to the nation’s top linebacker. Clark led the Zips in solo tackles with 64 and total tackles with 93 last season. He had 22 tackles against Eastern Illinois. . . . Zips center Mike O’Connor, a junior who has a foot injury but is probable for today’s game, played football at Mater Dei High School. O’Connor’s father, Jake O’Connor, played college football with Akron Coach Gerry Faust at Dayton. . . . Titan quarterback Paul Schulte will be throwing against a veteran secondary that has helped the Zips intercept 10 passes in three games. Akron’s starters in the defensive backfield are all seniors, cornerbacks Ozzie Jackson and Shawn Vincent and safeties Shannon Wolfe and Chris Hill. . . . When Fullerton and Akron met in 1988, the Zips got a 24-yard field goal from Bob Dombroski with one second remaining for the victory. . . . Fullerton is ranked 83rd and Akron 84th in USA Today’s most recent college football rankings. . . . The Titans are 6-17 on artificial turf since 1980. . . . Offensive tackle Mike Simmons, who sprained an ankle last week, is expected to play, and backup quarterback Terry Payne, who sprained a finger, also will be available. . . . Inside linebacker Lorenzo Hailey leads the Titans in tackles with 32, followed by outside linebacker Clarence Siler with 19. . . . Kevin Koontz, a backup running back and special teams player, broke his ankle in practice Tuesday and won’t play today.