Cal State Northridge is an independent in football for the first time since 1964, yet the Matadors' goals differ little from last season, when they were a member of the Big Sky Conference.
"You always like to have a conference championship to play for," third-year Coach Jeff Kearin said. "But our goals have always been the same, win all of our games against [NCAA] Division I-AA opponents and we'll get one of the [eight] at-large bids [for the 16-team] playoffs."
Northridge, known as Valley State College the last time it was an independent in football, is one of 123 teams playing at the Division I-AA level this year.
The Matadors played in the Big Sky Conference for the previous five seasons, but became an independent when the school joined the football-less Big West Conference.
Northridge, which opens Thursday at Northern Arizona, was 4-7 last season and seventh in the Big Sky with a 2-6 record. Kearin is optimistic about this season, however, because record-setting quarterback Marcus Brady is a senior and a porous defense appears to be vastly improved.
Brady, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound graduate of San Diego Morse High, has thrown for 9,556 yards and 75 touchdowns during his first three seasons. He holds five Division I-AA records--including highest completion percentage (85.0) in a game--and could break career marks for completions and attempts this season.
He is being touted as a candidate for the Walter Payton Award, the Division I-AA version of the Heisman Trophy.
"He's the guy who has kept this thing together from the start," Kearin said. "He's the guy who has made us go."
A tender right hamstring has limited Brady's play since practice began Aug. 11, but Kearin expects him to make his 34th consecutive start against Northern Arizona.
Brady threw for 2,815 yards and a Division I-AA leading 25 touchdowns last season. The yardage total was 511 less than his sophomore season, but his 10 interceptions were five fewer than the previous year.
"A lot of those interceptions were my fault," Kearin said of Brady's sophomore season. "I was late coming into the picture and it took us a while to get used to each other. I asked him to do some things I shouldn't have."
Kearin, 10-12 at Northridge, was hired as the Matadors' interim coach in July 1999 when Ron Ponciano was fired after a university investigation into NCAA rules violations.
The NCAA put Northridge on three years probation and banned the team from postseason play last season because of numerous violations in recruiting, ethical conduct and institutional control.
Not that the Matadors were in the Big Sky title hunt long.
They lost their first four conference games after splitting nonconference contests against Air Force (a 55-6 loss) and Southwest Texas (a 19-13 overtime victory) to start the season.
Northridge improved to 2-4 in conference with victories against Montana State and Eastern Washington but lost its last two Big Sky games to Cal State Sacramento and Portland State while giving up a combined 113 points.
"We turned the ball over too much last season," Kearin said. "We gave our defense a short field to defend. . . . The defense started out OK, but then it steadily declined as the season went along."
With eight starters back and a new scheme in place, Kearin doesn't expect that to happen again.
"Our defensive coaches have done a great job in simplifying the defense," he said. "The players don't have to make as many decisions. [The coaches have] freed up our faster guys to run. They're trying to take advantage of their God-given strength and speed."
Linebackers Cos Abercrombie, Lewis Blanton and Ben Lorier and free safety Travis Campbell will spearhead a defense that is "defending the pass 100% better" than last season, according to Kearin.
The 6-1, 225-pound Abercrombie is entering his fourth season as a starter with the 5-11, 190-pound Blanton beginning his third.
Scoring points should not be a problem for Northridge. In addition to Brady, the Matadors return four of their top five receivers as well as their two leading rushers.
Junior Drew Amerson, a high school teammate of Brady's, earned All-Big Sky honors last season after leading the conference in receptions (71) and touchdown receptions (10) and ranking fifth in reception yardage (817).
Sophomore tailback Bruce Molock rushed for a team-high 640 yards and five touchdowns, although he is currently second on the depth chart behind senior Terrelus Wright.
Right tackle Keith Kincaid, a three-year starter, has been brought along slowly after undergoing shoulder surgery in the spring, but center Javier Ortiz returns for his third season as a starter with Ashcon Madjid and Tyrone Tutogi entering their second at guard.
Brady was sacked 27 times last season and scrambled his way out of numerous other potential losses, but he expects to have more time to throw this season.
"I've seen a lot of improvement in the O-line in practice," Brady said. "I've been able to sit back in the pocket and step up and throw. They've given me some nice passing lanes."
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Cal State Northridge Schedule
Thursday at Northern Arizona, 5 p.m.
Sept. 15 Southwest Texas, 1 p.m.
Sept. 22 at Stephen F. Austin, 5 p.m.
Sept. 29 at Montana State, noon
Oct. 6 Western Oregon, 1 p.m.
Oct. 13 at UC Davis, 6 p.m.
Oct. 20 at Troy State, 11 a.m.
Oct. 27 at Eastern Washington, 2 p.m.
Nov. 3 Cal State Sacramento, 1 p.m.
Nov. 10 at Cal Poly SLO, 6 p.m.
Nov. 17 at Portland State, 2 p.m.