Cal State Northridge was knocked out of the Western Football Conference race Saturday night by Southern Utah, a team that exploited the Matadors' pass defense and returned two first-half interceptions for touchdowns.
The points CSUN allowed in the 56-28 loss before 5,608 at North Campus Stadium was the most the team has given up since Nov. 23, 1985, when Portland State scored 61.
"We stunk," CSUN Coach Bob Burt said. "I will never let our football team forget this game so long as I am coaching here."
The loss dropped the Matadors, co-defending champions of the WFC, to 3-5 overall, 1-2 in the WFC. Even if they win their remaining two games, the Matadors will not finish above .500 for the first time in Burt's sixth-year CSUN career.
Two key offensive players suffered severe injuries in the second half. Quarterback Marty Fisher was taken to the hospital for X-rays of a possible broken left ankle and offensive guard George Fua has a possible torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Southern Utah (6-3, 3-1), an upset winner against sixth-ranked Cal State Sacramento last week, ran up 420 yards in total offense. Quarterback James Armendariz passed for 214 yards, including two touchdowns, and Zed Robinson, the second-leading rusher in the nation in Division II, ran for 100 yards and scored three times.
The Thunderbirds wore black stripes on their helmets in honor of Brad Matthews, their quarterback in 1990. Matthews died Thursday in an auto accident in Cedar City, Utah.
"It was really emotional," Southern Utah Coach Jack Bishop said.
Key for the Thunderbirds was a span of 3 minutes 37 seconds when they scored 21 points to take a 42-14 halftime lead.
The first of Fisher's interceptions was returned 54 yards by safety Darren DeGracie for a 21-7 lead with 1:34 left in the first quarter. DeGracie emerged from a crowd with the ball and beat two CSUN players en route to the end zone.
On the other interception, Southern Utah linebacker Clint Christiansen stepped in front of CSUN wide receiver Cornell Ward and dashed 42 yards to the end zone.
The Thunderbirds took a 7-0 lead on their first possession, a 10-play, 72-yard drive capped by Robinson's 34-yard touchdown run. Robinson broke three tackles on the play and ran right over safety Eric Treibatch, the last player who had a chance to stop him.
CSUN answered with perhaps its most daring first-down play of the season--a 55-yard pass from Fisher to Paul Peters, who used a nifty spin move to pick up 15 extra yards. Four plays later, Harris scored on a one-yard dive and Dan Eastman's kick tied the score, 7-7.
Two sacks by CSUN's Ron McKinney forced the Thunderbirds to end their next possession with a 52-yard field goal attempt that was short. But Northridge was offside on the play and Southern Utah's drive was revived.
Another sack--this one on a blitz by Mario Hull for a 13-yard loss--appeared to end the drive, but on the ensuing play Bob Stookey caught a 32-yard pass, setting up a one-yard touchdown run by Robinson that made it 14-7 with 3:12 left in the first quarter. Five plays later, DeGracie made it 21-7 with his interception.
CSUN pulled within a touchdown after its only break of the first half--a fumble by Robinson. Ken Jackson's hit forced the fumble and Treibatch recovered on the CSUN 35. Ward made a 16-yard catch to keep the drive alive and Peters' ended it with a two-yard touchdown catch with 8:05 left in the first half.
Southern Utah answered with a 60-yard touchdown reception by Dan Silcox, who on a second-and-21 play beat CSUN cornerback Tremelle Barnes down the right sideline for a 28-14 advantage.
Less than two minutes later, Christiansen's interception and touchdown return increased the advantage to 34-14.
The Thunderbirds got the ball back with 1:20 left in the half and scored on the first play--a 70-yard reception by Stookey, who caught the ball with an eight-yard lead on CSUN reserve cornerback Rodney Banks. Southern Utah led, 42-14.
The Matadors gave their largest home crowd this season something to cheer about midway through the third quarter when wide receiver Ward threw an option pass to Bill Nealy for a 30-yard touchdown. It was Ward's fourth touchdown pass of the season. Don Martin's conversion catch made it 48-22.