Across a horizon of red rock formations and mountain peaks, Cal State Northridge Coach Bob Burt searched for a silver lining to his winless team's 23-9 loss to Northern Arizona Saturday night.
Although the offense sputtered in its third consecutive defeat and the special teams allowed a 73-yard punt return, Burt put a positive spin on it.
"We're playing through incredible adversity," he said. "Our third consecutive road trip against teams with the wherewithal to pound us by 50 or 60 points and we're hanging in there. If we play in our league the way we played the first three games, we're gonna win some games."
J.J. O'Laughlin, the Matadors' third starting quarterback in as many games, cast a more critical eye.
"Overall, the offense needs to do a much better job," he said. "It was me, sometimes it was the receivers, sometimes the running backs. There's no one to blame but the entire offense. We need to get on the same page. We can't afford to let this happen again."
O'Laughlin, who transferred from Illinois less than two weeks ago, completed 10 of 29 passes for only 31 yards with one interception. With Northern Arizona blitzing on almost every play and the Matadors continually failing to pick up the blitz, O'Laughlin was always in a hurry.
He showed promising athletic ability, however, getting off one pass with a Lumberjack player holding his left arm and getting off others while being knocked on his backside.
Most of those passes, incompletions and completions alike, were thrown to tailbacks coming out of the backfield. It was the only way O'Laughlin could get the ball off given the nanoseconds required for the Lumberjack linebackers to get in his face. As a result, however, the completions went for short gains. The longest, by tailback Robert Trice, went for 15 yards.
"We need to do some serious film work," O'Laughlin said of the Matadors' inability to pick up the blitz. "We have to figure out what we should be doing and have it in our arsenal in case we see it again."
The offense was also stalled by miscommunication between O'Laughlin and his receivers. In an attempt to keep it to a minimum, the Matadors rarely used the run-and-shoot offense. The emphasis on the running game produced 106 yards, 75 by Trice in 19 carries, but no touchdowns.
The Matadors were limited to a 34-yard field goal by Jason Camp and a 48-yard fumble return for a touchdown by cornerback Ralph Henderson.
Northern Arizona (3-0) countered with one scoring drive, a 73-yard punt return by Alex Calderwood and three field goals by Terry Belden, including a Big Sky record 60-yarder.
Northridge's defense forced three Lumberjack fumbles and held Northern Arizona to 191 yards.
"They played their hearts out," O'Laughlin said.
Henderson made the most impressive play of the game, but it was marred by a showboating penalty. On a fumble recovery, he blazed past Lumberjack quarterback Jeff Lewis and started high-stepping toward the goal line at the Northern Arizona 15. At the five, Henderson held the ball up in the air over his head and danced into the end zone. Considering the Matadors were trailing by 17 points, it was ill-advised. Moreover, it drew a 15-yard penalty assessed on the ensuing kickoff. The 48-yard fumble return for a touchdown did make the final score more respectable, although holder James Woods' pass on a fake kick on the extra point fell incomplete.
Moments later, defensive end Victor Myles, who left the game several times with an ankle sprain, sacked Lewis, knocking the ball out of his hands. It rolled toward the Northridge end zone with 282-pound defensive tackle Oscar Wilson giving chase. Wilson beat a Northern Arizona player to the ball and following a personal foul by the Lumberjacks on the ensuing play, Northridge was on the verge of making a game of it.
But on third and eight from the Northern Arizona 15, O'Laughlin's pass into the end zone was intercepted by Rayna Stewart, a sophomore from Chatsworth High who had Northridge wide receiver Duc Ngo blanketed on the play.
Even the Matadors' lone field goal, with 7 minutes 17 seconds left in the third quarter, was not the result of offensive productivity. It was set up when Travis Hall's tackle forced punt returner Calderwood to fumble. James Wicks recovered on the Northern Arizona 20, but the Matadors could not punch it in.
In a play typical of the difficulties a new quarterback has with receivers, O'Laughlin's pass to the corner of the end zone on third and two from the 12 sailed harmlessly to the turf because intended receiver Victor Prince was knocked off his route seven yards shy of O'Laughlin's pass.
Northern Arizona took a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter when Lewis found Calderwood in the end zone on an eight-yard pass play.
After Calderwood's touchdown return, Belden made it 17-0 with his 60-yard field goal with 44 seconds left in the half.
In the thin air, elevation 7,000 feet, Belden's kick sailed 10 yards beyond the end zone, breaking Jan Stenerud's 1965 Big Sky record of 59 yards for Montana State and equaled by Joe Petrone of Idaho State in 1968.
It was the longest field goal allowed by Northridge since Phil Nevin's 54-yarder in 1989.
Northridge tackling leader Ivy Calvin was injured on a 34-yard return of the opening kickoff of the second half. He returned for the next series, then was replaced by Penn Bushong. Late in the game, he returned for a few defensive plays. . . . When Albert Razo's punt was blocked by Dereck Williams, a sophomore from Crespi High, it marked the first time a Razo punt had been blocked, ending a streak of 165 punts. Although the return on the block gave Northern Arizona the ball on the CSUN 30, Terry Belden's 50-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
Wide receiver Duc Ngo is scheduled to be featured on ESPN today. Two days before the fall of Saigon, Ngo, then 2, escaped Vietnam. He, his parents and two siblings piled into a boat that sailed to the Philippines. Eventually, the family was transported to Guam. After a year, the U.S. government placed them in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania. At the invitation of a relative who had settled in San Jose, the family moved west and opened a Vietnamese restaurant. Ngo's parents, Song and Nancy, were so fearful of the dangers of football that Duc did not tell them he was playing for CSUN when he walked on 1 1/2 years ago.