Arkansas State's turnabout/miracle/last-second victory over defending Big West Conference champion Nevada that came when it was at about halftime in Las Cruces Saturday suddenly made this game THE GAME for Utah State.

At the beginning of the day, Utah State's chances of winning the Big West Conference's Las Vegas Bowl II bid were the slightest of any of the four frontrunners - New Mexico State, Nevada, Southwestern Louisiana and USU. But at halftime, USU found out that Arkansas State had changed all that with a huge upset over the one team in the conference that had beaten the Aggies from Logan."You could see a change in their attitude when they heard that," said USU coach Charlie Weatherbie about his team that had dominated the first half but was behind by eight points. "At halftime, they really picked it up."

Utah State came back to defeat New Mexico State 20-17 and win at least a share of the league championship. An outright title depends upon what Southwestern Louisiana does next week to close out its season after beating UNLV Saturday.

More importantly, and most improbably, Utah State won the bid to Las Vegas Bowl II on Dec. 17 because of its season-opening win at USL. The bid was tendered to USU by officials from the Big West and Las Vegas in the howling Northern Aggie locker room following the game.

"I just thank Arkansas State," said Weatherbie.

He noted that the Aggies had been a point away from tying for conference championships each of the last three years, "and we won by three - a point a year," said Weatherbie. "Our program needed something like this," he added. Disappointment has been the rule at the end of recent Aggie seasons.

It was Utah State's 100th game in the Big West (formerly PCAA) and its first winning season since 1980 when the Aggies were also 6-5. USU finished 5-1 in the conference. USL is 4-1 with one to play. NMSU finished 4-2, 5-6, and Nevada was 4-2, 7-4 with several wins over I-AA teams.

Utah State led early Saturday 6-0 on two Nate Morreale field goals that made him the USU single-season record-holder with 19, but New Mexico State went ahead 14-6 in the first half with big plays and stayed up 14-13 after USU scored (Anthony Calvillo to Mike Lee), then increased that to 17-13 just into the fourth quarter with a field goal.

After an exchange of interceptions, Utah State's Profail Grier broke off a 28-yard run on a draw, and tight end Aubrey Thompson willed himself into the end zone on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Calvillo with 6:49 remaining for the 20-17 Utah State lead.

To seal it, Utah State linebacker David Gill, who dropped an interception one play earlier, intercepted NMSU quarterback Cody Ledbetter with less than five minutes remaining. New Mexico State got the ball back, but Morreale's punt was downed by Johnny Williams on the home Aggies' 1-yard line, and Lyons pressured Ledbetter all over the place for the final NMSU downs. Calvillo kneeled with the ball a couple times as Father Time ran out in its battle with Utah State's years of frustration.

The Aggies hadn't won a conference championship since 1979 and haven't gone to a bowl since 1961. It is the Aggies' fifth bowl game ever.

"Viva Las Vegas!" somebody shouted in the locker room as the Aggies gathered around USU athletic director Chuck Bell, Weatherbie, Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell and other dignitaries.

"When we started off in August, we knew something good was going to happen to this football team," insisted Weatherbie, whose team endured three last-second losses and a five-game losing streak but has replaced that with a five-game winning streak that included four last-minute wins, counting Saturday's, which was close to that.

"You did a super job being the champs I knew you could be," he told his team. In his post-game prayer, Weatherbie said, "Thank you for the trials we've had all year long, because we grew from them."

Game balls went to the offensive line and defenders Smith and Lyons.

"At the end of the game, you're trying to play your best," said Lyons, a promising freshman tackle. "I didn't want to let the senior linemen down," he said, mentioning Scott Moala and Dan-ie'l Taplin. After he heard Arkansas State had opened the door for USU, said Lyons, "I still had the same feeling. We knew we had to win, but we started picking up toward the end."

Said Thompson of the TD catch that he made, on which he caught the ball and was hit at about the 5 but dragged the defender and dove with the ball outstretched into the end zone, "I was not going to be denied. I knew he was bouncing off me."

Thompson said the Aggie seniors got together in the locker room at halftime and said, "There's no way we're going to go out like this. Last year we went out by two points (the last-second loss at Nevada, actually one point, 48-47)."

Because of James Dye's "turf toe" injury from last week's game and Profail Grier's illness and rib injury last week that kept him out of practice, junior Kendrick Huey started at running back for Utah State and carried the ball the first nine plays in a row. In 10 previous games, he had seven carries for 13 yards but matched that total in his first four carries Saturday and wound up with 18 carries for 71 yards. "I could play another game. I'm juiced," he said. He was surprised he played so much, though Weatherbie said USU planned to run and play a physical style with the larger Huey in there.

At halftime, said Huey, "We just got our mental heads together."

Grier carried 21 times for 142 yards. Calvillo had another slow day passing, 13-28-160 with two touchdowns and one interception. He set school single-season records in total offense and most attempts in a season but missed the season passing yardage record. He needed 231 passing. Bowl stats don't count.

Lee and Thompson each caught four passes and each had a TD reception.