Even CSUN Can Keep Dreaming : Football: Despite dismal season, Matadors turn hopes to a conference championship.


The American Dream: No matter who you are, where you come from or how low you are on the economic totem pole, you can still work your way to the top.

The American West Conference Dream: No matter how badly you play in your nonconference games, if you have three good days, you can still be a champion.

What a country.

The Cal State Northridge football team, which is in the middle of a nightmarish 1-5 season, still has as good a chance as any other team of winning the American West Conference. The Matadors play the first of their three conference games Saturday, when Southern Utah comes to North Campus Stadium.

Northridge plays at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Nov. 4 and plays host to Cal State Sacramento in the season finale, Nov. 18.

"We were laughing about it," Northridge Coach Dave Baldwin said, "but we could still win the conference."

Sure, the Matadors are having a dismal season. But consider the American West competition:

Southern Utah is 2-6, 0-1 in the conference. Cal Poly is 3-4 and 1-1, with Northridge its only remaining conference opponent. The team in the best shape is Sacramento, which is 2-4-1 and 1-0, having upset Cal Poly, 37-36, on a last-second field gal last week.

The American West's record against nonconference opponents is 6-17-1. But conference coaches don't seem too concerned or embarrassed about that statistic, because all four teams are playing with significantly fewer scholarships than the NCAA Division I-AA maximum, 63.

"We've gone to Division I-AA and not being fully funded, you can see a definite lack of speed and size at the skill positions in all the [American West] teams," Southern Utah Coach Jack Bishop said.

Southern Utah leads the conference with 28 football scholarships. Cal Poly has 27, Northridge has 20 and Sacramento has only 10.

Cal Poly was the preseason favorite to win the final American West football title--the conference is folding after this season. The Mustangs had 14 returning starters from last year's 7-4 conference champion. Quarterback Mike Fisher, last year's American West offensive player of the year, again is leading the conference in passing, averaging 239.0 yards. The Mustangs lead the conference with a 435.7-yard average on offense.

Mustang Coach Andre Patterson said he was not particularly disappointed in three of his team's losses--because they came against talented Big Sky Conference teams--but last week's Sacramento defeat could be a killer.

"That's the hardest for us to get over," Patterson said. "It's a league game and rivalry game, and for us to blow that game is very difficult. . . . We lost control of our destiny. Sacramento now has control. If they win their next two league games, it's easy, they are the champs."

Sacramento has become a new football team in the past two weeks. After starting 0-4-1, the Hornets upset Southwest Texas State, which hammered Northridge and Southern Utah, and then scored 17 points in the final 12 minutes to beat Cal Poly.

"We knew the conference championship went through San Luis Obispo," Sacramento Coach John Volek said. "To be on the road in front of 8,000 people and come away with a victory, it's a huge victory for our program."

Especially considering where the program was last spring. Like Northridge, Sacramento had its football program saved by a student fee referendum. Volek, a first-year coach, helped revive the team with a batch of junior college players added in July.

The one who has had the most impact is Mt. San Jacinto transfer Michael Stewart, who is leading the conference in rushing, averaging 100.3 yards.

Sacramento has two nonconference games before finishing its season with a home game against Southern Utah and a game at Northridge.

Southern Utah has spent the past two years converting its offense from an option to a more pass-oriented attack, which helps the Thunderbirds fit in with the rest of the conference. Rick Robins averages 203.4 yards passing. Southern Utah allows 416.0 yards and 31.3 points a game.

But few of the negative statistics surrounding the conference can top those put up by Northridge. The most glaring is that the Matadors have lost five consecutive games, by a combined score of 228-37. The team's only victory came against Division III Menlo College.

Despite it all, though, Northridge is only three victories from a conference championship.

"You never know what can happen in the conference," Baldwin said.

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