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Colo. State goes wacky with "D'

The philosophy is so stunningly simple, it is puzzling why nobody in the Western Athletic Conference thought to do something similar before now.

In the wacky WAC, where having the ball last with a chance to score is usually the best way to a victory, why not emphasize defense in order to stop opponents who are so good offensively?

It wasn't so hard for Sonny Lubick to figure out. The former Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator is now the head coach at surprising Colorado State (7-0), which plays Utah (6-0) today in a rare late-season WAC showdown.

The winner likely will get the conference's automatic spot in the Holiday Bowl.

The WAC has three teams ranked in the AP Top 20 for the first time in its history (Colorado State No. 12, Utah No. 18 and Brigham Young No. 21). And this is the first time that two undefeated teams have met this late in the season.

After a 5-6 record a year ago, which included winning the last three games, the Rams have won seven straight this season, including wins at Brigham Young and Arizona.

"I knew at the end of last year we could be a good team," said Lubick, 57, the defensive coordinator at Miami during national championship seasons in 1989 and '91. "But never did I expect or anticipate anything like this."

Unusual things are happening in Fort Collins, Colo., which is only about an hour from Denver. Some 1,500 standing-room-only tickets will be sold, and about 36,000 fans will cram into Hughes Stadium for the game.

Just two years ago, former coach Earle Bruce left Colorado State in shame, fired for allegedly abusing his players verbally and physically.

Bruce had taken the Rams to the Freedom Bowl in 1990, but it was one of only two winning seasons for the program since 1981.

Then Lubick came in emphasizing defense. And teams in the league have caught on. Utah, today's opponent, is ranked third in the nation in passing defense and sixth in scoring defense.

But the Utes have not played a team the caliber of Arizona, which Colorado State defeated 21-16 to give the WAC and the Rams credibility.

The Rams are playing an aggressive, blitzing defense that has produced 72 points from 19 turnovers.

But Lubick knows much work still needs to be done at the school where he was an assistant coach in the early '80s.

"We've still got a lot of the same facilities we had back when I was an assistant here," Lubick said last year. "It's definitely something we have to overcome in recruiting, especially if a kid is looking at schools like BYU or Utah. We don't measure up."

For now, the Rams look just fine.

Less success: Another former UM assistant is struggling. Kim Helton, who coached under Howard Schnellenberger at Miami and also was a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant coach, is trying to rebuild the Houston program that crumbled in the wake of John Jenkins.

When Jenkins was fired two years ago, about 30 players left the program.

"If we didn't dress out the 38 walk-ons we had at that first practice (in the fall of 1993), we wouldn't have been able to field a team," Helton said. "There's a conference rule that says you can only have 66 players travel. We don't have that problem.

"For us to find 66 players, we have to make some folks up. We just started being able to field a scout team. Normally, we could only practice our offense against our defense."

At least the Cougars were able to gain some respect with their 39-33 victory over SMU last week.

Coaching heat I: Off to an 0-6 start, Iowa State coach Jim Walden admits his days may be numbered.

"I think that's really a foregone conclusion," said Walden, who is 28-53-2 in seven seasons. "I'm at the blast-furnace level already, so there's really no heat to turn up."

Coaching heat II: Oklahoma suffered its worst loss in 25 years in a 45-7 defeat at Colorado and is 3-3 for the first time since 1970. Under coach Gary Gibbs, the Sooners are 2-14-1 against their biggest rivals: Texas, Colorado and Nebraska.

Bowl talk: All sorts of scenarios abound as the new bowl alliance tries to finalize plans for next year. Here are a few:

The Cotton Bowl is talking about a deal in which it will match the Big 12 runner-up each year against either the ACC or Big East runner-up. The team not selected from the Big East or ACC would play in the Gator Bowl against the SEC No. 3 team.

Tampa's Hall of Fame Bowl has discussed the idea of offering its two slots to the ACC runner-up and the Big Ten's third-place team. If FSU were to ever slip out of the ACC's top spot, that would give the local bowl a boost.

Jacksonville's Gator Bowl is working on a deal with the ACC and the Big East.

For this post-season, the coalition is still in place, which has raised many questions about Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, along with the ACC champion and the Big East champion, are guaranteed a spot in either the Orange, Sugar or Cotton bowls.

But Notre Dame has three losses and has dropped out of the Top 25. Now what?

As long as Notre Dame has at least six victories, it would be eligible for the coalition, but more likely in its second tier. That means probably a spot in either the Gator or Hancock bowls.

Quotable: Joe Paterno, coach of No. 1-ranked Penn State, on the Nittany Lions' surprisingly high-powered offense: "I kind of resent a little bit the implication that all of a sudden we went out and bought a passing book and figured out how to throw the football. That's kind of ludicrous. You do what you gotta do. There are no secrets about it."