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AZTECS TRYING HARD TO SHED ALL-OFFENSE, NO-DEFENSE LABEL

San Diego State's football team has always been like a loaded gun held by a naked man.

All offense, no defense.Everyone knows that halfback Marshall Faulk is an honest-to-goodness Heisman Trophy candidate, that David Lowery is a proven quarterback, that wide receiver Darnay Scott can go deep, and that the Aztecs can score on anybody.

Everyone also knows that anyone can score on the Aztecs. This is the team that allowed opponents to pass for a total of 3,643 yards last year, easily the highest yield in the nation.

All those yards explains why Aztec coach Al Luginbill wasn't doing cartwheels when the season ended and it appeared his entire secondary would return intact. And why he didn't leave it intact.

To begin with, Luginbill moved All-WAC safety Damon Pieri to cornerback, where he started his career. Then he shifted backup strong safety Darrell Lewis to free safety.

Those two moves and some good recruiting put the Aztecs in the position of having a deeper, more experienced secondary.

"The thing that got us into trouble last year was the dropoff that occurred when a front-line player was injured," Luginbill said.

Or when, late in the game, the defensive backs just plain got pooped.

Consider: In first quarters last season, SDSU gave up 53 points. In second quarters, 73; third quarters, 107; and fourth quarters, 132.

When the going got tough, the defense got tired.

Pieri says that the late-game fatigue was at least partially due to playing straight man-to-man defense for the entire game, which is why SDSU worked on mixing up its coverages more this year.

"We'll play more zone, maybe blitz a little bit more," Pieri said.

That late-game collapse, of

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course, was never more evident than when BYU and San Diego State met last November, with the WAC title and Holiday Bowl berth on the line. Lowery completed 26 of 39 passes for an Aztec record 568 yards; Scott blistered the Cougar secondary for eight catches and 243 yards; and Faulk had 118 yards and two touchdowns rushing, 116 yards and two touchdowns receiving.

And despite all that, SDSU blew a 28-point third-quarter lead and let BYU come back for a 52-52 tie - the highest-scoring tie in NCAA history - and the title.

"We were tired at the end of that game," Pieri said. "We know now we can't play man-to-man for a whole game, especially against a team like BYU that throws 50 times."

Still, the Aztecs impressed enough people that most preseason publications picked them to win the WAC. Pieri, for one, says that honor is merited.

"I think we deserve it," he said. "We should win the WAC. We have the fastest, most talented team. It's going to be a big disappointment if we don't win the WAC."

Luginbill has been more cautious, of course, saying that the Aztecs have to prove they are best before they can boast of being best. He also said they have to learn a few things.

"I anticipate we're going to be in a lot of games . . . that are going to be won in the fourth quarter," Luginbill said before the season. "Defensively, we need to learn how to protect a lead and offensively we need to learn how to put people away."

So what do they do to start the '92 season? A tie, 31-31, against USC, as the Trojans passed for 278 yards and four touchdowns.

Obviously, they're still learning.

AZTEC NOTES: All of SDSU's losses last year were against teams that finished the season in the Top 25. For that matter, the Aztecs haven't beaten a Top 20 team since November 1988, when they knocked off 20th-ranked BYU . . . Faulk got all the publicity, but Lowery was voted by his teammates as the team's MVP last year . . . Pieri said the toughest place to play in the WAC is "Definitely BYU. They have great fan support and they're always tough."