Al Luginbill paces the sidelines in pursuit of perfection, wearing a path in the grass. Look for Luginbill Lane in left-center field when the Padres are home. The fact that perfection can rarely be found on a football field only intensifies his frustration.
To say that the imperfection of San Diego State's defense has been a thorn in his side as head coach would be an understatement. It has been more like a sword in his heart.
He was wounded last Saturday night, when Pacific scored 34 points against his less-than-stalwart defenders. He was angry and mad.
Forget that his offense had scored 55 points. This sort of defense simply would not do.
This was enough to obscure a burst of brilliance, if not pure perfection, by a freshman named Marshall Faulk, who ran rampant for 386 yards and seven touchdowns. You know how a parent is when he sees a report card with three A's and three Fs. It takes him awhile to get around to feeling good about the three A's.
In the aftermath, in fact, when asked exactly when he realized something very special was happening, he said: "I never got the sense anything special was happening other than we were scrambling for our lives. . . . We took a real step backward defensively tonight."
This was his fixation. This was his attitude in the locker room. This was his attitude on the radio postgame show. This was a concern he probably carried with him to his pillow.
But what of this kid Faulk?
All he had done was set an all-time NCAA record for rushing yardage in one game. He set a number of other records of lesser magnitude, but that was the big one. Pacific might have had the worst defense this side of Baghdad, but a lot of running backs have run against equally pitiful defenses and not done what Faulk did.
He turned San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium into his own personal Faulkland.
Frankly, Luginbill would figure to have been overwhelmed with excitement. Here is a program crying for anything or any one to electrify the fans and bring them pouring through the turnstiles. Luginbill himself had spent the summer spearheading the "Fill the Murph" campaign.
Suddenly, box office had hit him in the face and he seemed to be brushing it away as though it were an errant fly.
However, to understand Luginbill's reaction is to understand Luginbill.
"At that time," Luginbill said this week, "I was into winning the football game. I let the lack of focus and fundamentals on defense override Marshall's performance. To be honest with you, I didn't even know how many yards he gained until I got to the locker room. My biggest concern was for game management."
And this was a game that was probably a little more unmanageable than he expected it to be. There were occasions, at least two he mentioned, when the defense was in position to put the game away. It did not happen and Pacific kept sneaking back to within striking distance.
"We were in position to dominate the last two quarters," he said, "but we didn't do the things we needed to do on defense."
One of the ironies was that Faulk would not have had quite the night he had without those defensive shortcomings. Had the game been put away early, he would not have been on the field long enough to amass such yardage.
That he was on the field at all, at least to the extent that he played, was because of an injury suffered by senior running back T.C. Wright. Faulk was not called upon until late in the first period.
"When we decided not to redshirt him," Luginbill explained, "we were going to pick our spots and break him in. But he got an opportunity and obviously did the job."
Obviously, Luginbill loves this kid.
"He's one of the finest kids I've been around," he said. "That showed in his comments after the game, particularly his comments about his teammates. I've said he was special all along, but a great concern I have is not wanting the expectation level to go beyond him."
This is a very reasonable concern. The young man is all of 18. He will be playing his third collegiate game Saturday at Air Force. If Wright is healthy, young Faulk will not be starting. Luginbill's policy, which happens to be a sound one, is that starters do not lose their jobs because of injuries.
Marshall Faulk probably will never have a game like he had against Pacific. He doesn't need to repeat such a game. He just needs to contribute when and how he is asked to contribute. That is how success is ultimately measured, and Marshall Faulk has shown he is going to be quite successful.
Meanwhile, Al Luginbill is hopeful his defense does not have another game like it had against Pacific.