Harry Houdini would have been proud of the Cal State Northridge football team.
The Matadors pulled off a great escape on Saturday night, beating Southern Utah, 34-28, in an American West Conference game before 2,978 at North Campus Stadium.
The victory was a relief for the Matadors, not only because they had lost five in a row, but because they nearly blew a 31-point third-quarter lead.
Northridge held on when cornerback Doug Varner deflected Rick Robins' fourth-down pass at the Northridge 15 with 1 minute 2 seconds to play in the game.
"I've never been so nervous in my life," Northridge safety Jim Rose said. "When that ball hit the ground it was like the whole season just went away."
The victory breathed life into a Matador season that seemed otherwise dead. Northridge, though only 2-5 overall, is now 1-0 in the AWC and tied for first place with Cal State Sacramento.
The game looked like it would be an easy Northridge victory after the first half.
The Matadors recovered an onside kick on the opening kickoff and used that momentum to bolt to a 27-3 halftime lead. It was by far the Matadors' best half of the season. Northridge had not held a lead since its Sept. 9 opener against Menlo College.
The Matadors blocked well, protecting quarterback Clayton Millis and opening holes for the running backs. They avoided turnovers, which had been the main cause of their five consecutive losses. The receivers caught the football.
The defense pressured the Thunderbirds (2-7, 0-2) and took the ball away four times before the intermission. The defense even scored, when Varner picked up a fumble and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
Northridge's proudest moment of the first half came midway through the second quarter when Southern Utah had a first down on the Matador five. But the defense, which had been ripped for more than 38 points a game this year, kept the Thunderbirds out of the end zone.
Then on the Matadors' first play from their one, Millis fumbled the ball into the hands of running back Chad Marsalek, who ran 71 yards, setting up the Matadors' fourth touchdown of the half.
Marsalek ran for 157 yards in 24 carries. Millis completed 13 of 23 passes for 236 yards.
The second half started with more of the same for Northridge, which took a 34-3 lead on Chris Love's 58-yard touchdown catch on the first series of the quarter, but then the game started to turn sour for the Matadors.
"In the first half they were looking for our weaknesses," Varner said. "In the second half they exploited them."
The Thunderbirds suddenly found all the holes in the Northridge defense, and scored 25 points on their next four possessions, pulling to within 34-28 with 9:16 remaining.
Robins also got hot in the second half. Even when he seemed to be on the verge of taking a sack, his passes found the hands of his receivers.
The Thunderbirds' running game also picked up. Benji Hoskins scored on runs of 14, 35 and 38 yards in the second half. Hoskins ran for 148 yards in 14 carries.
Meantime, Northridge's offense could do nothing. The Matadors' only scoring threat was a drive that ended with Matt Ornelaz missing a 32-yard field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
"We didn't quit," Northridge Coach Dave Baldwin said. "That's the first time we've played four quarters all year. We didn't win all four, but we played all four."