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His Backs Got Tested, Toasted : College football: Irvin tries to rally Northridge’s secondary after two poor performances.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

LeRoy Irvin has seen it happen to the best of them.

A man becomes overconfident, lets his guard down, and allows another man to beat him.

He recalls a football game several years ago when Mark Duper, a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins, caught three touchdown passes over the same cornerback.

He remembers it vividly because he was the hapless defender.

Irvin, who played 11 years in the National Football League, went on to make the All-Pro team that year. A consummate professional, he did not let one bad game shake his confidence.

“Just because you make a couple of bad plays doesn’t mean you’re a bad player,” Irvin said. “If you’re not able to forget and keep going, then you won’t last in the secondary.”

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That is the message he has spread this week among players he coaches in the Cal State Northridge defensive backfield.

The Matador secondary was among the main reasons Northridge had the top-ranked defense in the American West Conference two weeks ago.

However, the same group has caught the brunt of the blame for consecutive losses, 31-30, to Cal State Sacramento, and, 48-38, to UC Davis. The Matadors (2-5) allowed 656 yards and six touchdowns through the air in the two games.

So, with pass-happy Chico State (3-3) due in for a nonconference game at North Campus Stadium on Saturday night at 7, Irvin has taken a get-tough approach with his besieged crew.

“Secondary guys have to have confidence and be resilient to whatever anyone says,” Irvin said. “We’re the last of the one-on-one gunslingers. We’re on an island. Everyone can see us and no one can help us. We have to help ourselves.”

Against Chico, Northridge’s defensive backfield will be at full strength for the first time in four games.

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The Matadors won, 24-18, at Nevada Las Vegas without cornerback Vincent Johnson, who was suspended, and safety Gerald Ponder, who boycotted to protest Johnson’s suspension. They lost against Sacramento without Ponder, who was suspended, and Robert Crosby, who was injured. And they lost against Davis with safety James Woods relegated to second string for unspecified disciplinary reasons.

“We haven’t had any continuity back there,” Coach Bob Burt said.

Irvin acknowledges that personnel changes have hampered consistency, but he blames himself for not anticipating complications after two key mistakes by secondary members in the Sacramento game.

The first, Irvin said, was when Johnson missed an easy tackle on an out pattern that resulted in a 40-yard scoring play. The second, he said, was when cornerback Ralph Henderson got beat for a 34-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-four play.

“You cover a guy 70 times in a row and he catches one or two balls on you and you feel like you’ve had a bad game,” Irvin said.

Again, Irvin speaks from experience.

He recalls once thoroughly dominating San Diego Charger receiver Anthony Miller, shutting him out and “knocking him to his knees on bump-and-run (coverage)” until the very end when Miller broke loose for a 55-yard touchdown that won the game.

“I relaxed, just a little,” Irvin said. “That’s what Ralph did. He beat his guy the whole game and then he relaxed at the end.”

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During practice the week before the Davis game, Irvin noticed Matador cornerbacks giving receivers a little more cushion and Northridge safeties playing slightly less aggressively.

He assumed that would change shortly after kickoff. But it didn’t.

“I didn’t want to believe it, and that was bad coaching on my part,” Irvin said. “I’m used to players being confident and not letting anything shake them.”

Irvin predicts the school’s homecoming Saturday night also will mark the return of strong secondary play.

“Their confidence is still a little down, but they’re going to be a different group this week,” he said.

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