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`NATION'S WORST TEAM' IS 3-0 AND TARGETING USU

For one team, being on the cover of Sports Illustrated was not a jinx.

Maybe it's reverse psychology, but the New Mexico State Aggies were on the SI preseason "best and worst" cover as worst team in America, and now they're 3-0 and leading the Big West Conference in several important categories, including best record. They even hold national rankings - punt returner Fred Montgomery is No. 2 in the NCAA (he was No. 1 a week ago), and quarterback Charles Puleri is ninth in NCAA total offense (277.7) and 13th in efficiency (142.8 rating). The team is No. 13 in total offense averaging 485 yards.All this awaits 0-3 Utah State Saturday at 1 p.m. at Romney Stadium in the Big West Conference opener for both teams.

Coach Jim Hess says the big turnabout - accomplished against Weber State, New Mexico and UTEP - is not a mere reaction to the SI pronouncement. "I think we are the worst program in America," he declares. Not the worst team. "We haven't been the worst team for a couple of years, but we're pretty close to being the worst program - everything that goes around it to make it (a program)."

And, despite the fact the NM Aggies have been wearing "107" on their helmets to signify their mythical last-place ranking in Division I, Hess says the SI cover was not a special challenge to his team. "We're challenged every time we wake up. It's a challenge gettin' up here; it's a good, steep hill," says Hess.

Besides, "When you get the cover of Sports Illustrated, you take it any way you can," says Hess, who figures it's given his team a national audience.

Senior quarterback Puleri became a starter late last season. "It was very poor coaching not to start him before we did," says a retrospective coach.

Puleri has an experienced offensive line, the NMS offense usually keeps one or two men back to block on passes and, "Puleri throws on rhythm very well; he does a real good job knowing when to go," says Utah State coach Charlie Weatherbie.

Puleri has "as good an arm as any player I've had at quarterback," Hess says. The man Puleri often goes to in a pinch is Todd Cutler, "maybe the best tight end in the nation," Hess has said.