San Diego State, a.k.a. Marshall Faulk, swaggered into Cougar Stadium on Thursday night, thumped itself on the chest and declared itself king of the WAC with a 45-38 victory over BYU.

Who can argue? When you beat the champ, you are the champ - at least until someone beats you, which doesn't seem likely, as long as Faulk (Did anyone say Heisman Trophy?) is healthy and given the football 35 times a game."He is the best football player in America, bar none," said SDSU coach Al Luginbill.

Football is a team sport, of course, but Faulk is the kind of player you could surround with a squadron of shoe salesmen and he'd still gain yards. Against the Cougars, who enter every season promising a new-and-improved defense and promptly surrender yards in bunches, Faulk rushed for a Cougar Stadium-record 299 yards. He averaged a healthy nine yards per carry, with three touchdowns.

"Marshall Faulk singlehandedly won this game," said BYU noseguard Lenny Gomes.

Gomes' assertion is hard to dispute. Running behind a massive Aztec line, Faulk took over the game with 165 yards in the third quarter, including a 65-yard TD sprint in which he outran everyone.

For BYU safety Derwin Gray, who can run a little himself, that dash was an eye-opener.

"As long as I've been playing," Gray said, "I've never had anybody run away from me the way he did."

In fairness to the BYU defense, they were a tad shorthanded in that third quarter. Starting linebackers Shad Hansen (concussion) and Todd Herget (ankle) were both injured late in the second quarter and never returned. That left the middle of the BYU defense manned by junior Ted Dawson, who last made a tackle in a varsity game in 1988, and senior Barrett Awai, who had a previous career total of five tackles.

"That was very crucial," Gray said of the injuries.

"It cost us the game," Gomes stated.

BYU coach LaVell Edwards agreed that the loss of his linebackers was significant, but seemed more disappointed that his offense didn't start the game better.

"I don't know what the problem was that first half," he said. "We came out flat."

BYU failed to score on its first three possessions, one of which ended when Aztec safety Darrell Lewis intercepted a floater thrown by BYU quarterback John Walsh and returned it 57 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The BYU defense was playing well at that point, keeping Faulk from making the big play and stopping the Aztecs on their first three possessions.

The Cougs first scored midway through the period, fullback Kalin Hall setting them up with a first-and-goal at the SDSU five with a 67-yard run during which just about every Aztec on the field had a shot at him. Tight end Byron Rex scored the TD on a two-yard pass from Walsh.

BYU fell behind 17-7 over the next 13 minutes as the Aztecs scored on a 30-yard pass to Scott and a 40-yard field goal by Andy Trakas. The teams traded scores for the remainder of the half - BYU getting into the end zone on a five-yard pass to Drage; Faulk diving two yards for a TD; and Dave Lauder drilling a 33-yard field goal that made the halftime score 24-17 in favor of the Aztecs.

In the third quarter, SDSU continually threatened to pull away, behind Faulk's heroics. On their first possession, Faulk capped an eight-play drive with a 10-yard touchdown run to put the Aztecs up 31-17. BYU came back with a nine-play drive of its own, however, culminating in a 10-yard TD pass to Drage.

Two plays later, Faulk pulled off his 65-yard run to again give SDSU a two-touchdown lead. Drage then scored his third touchdown of the night - he had nine catches for 198 yards, including a remarkable on-his-back catch of a ball tipped by a defender - on a 29-yard toss from Walsh to close within a TD again. On SDSU's next drive, Faulk rambled a mere 46 yards on the key play, setting up a 15-yard TD throw to Scott. Once again, the Aztecs were up by 14.

In the fourth quarter, either both defenses suddenly remembered how to play, or both offenses forgot. They went nearly 12 minutes without a score, paving the way for a dramatic final three minutes in which everyone in the stadium - including, probably, Luginbill - thought BYU was going to pull out at least another tie.

With 3:22 left and the ball on the Aztec 12-yard line, Walsh found Rex alone in a corner of the end zone for a touchdown, cutting the lead - again - to seven.

The Aztecs tried to run out the clock by handing the ball off five straight times to Faulk. On third and five at the SDSU 36, Faulk tried to get around the corner and was wrestled down by Gray. BYU was about to get the ball back with more than a minute to play. SDSU's punter booted the ball, with BYU's Brad Clark, a senior who was the ninth-ranked punt returner in the nation last year, set for the catch. The punt sailed high and a little wobbly, and Clark appeared to misjudge it slightly, finally trying to field it on his knees.

Then he dropped it. At the same moment several Aztecs pounced, one of them recovering the ball. SDSU was able to run out the clock, and BYU had its first conference loss of the season, the first WAC loss in Cougar Stadium since 1987.

Edwards, naturally, says this isn't the end of his team's title hopes. "I'm not down at all," he said. "It obviously puts them (SDSU) in great shape . . . but they still have to play a lot of folks."

Still, it will take two San Diego State losses for the Cougars to get back in the title picture, and the Aztecs have a soft WAC schedule, with the toughest games at home.

"I know this," said Luginbill. "We've only got three other road games in the conference and we're one up on everybody else in road wins."

For now, the Cougars can lick their wounds and prepare for UCLA on Sept. 19. It's not a conference game, but it won't be a breather.

GAME NOTES: Edwards expects Hansen to be ready against the Bruins, but Herget is questionable. Fullback Hema Heimuli, who had been nursing an ankle sprained against UTEP, left the game after a brief appearance.