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Tonight, when Utah State begins defense of its Big West Conference football co-championship at 7 o'clock in Romney Stadium against UNLV, the plot will be strength vs. strength, weakness vs. weakness. USU's ninth-in-the-Big-West offense vs. UNLV's last-in-the-league defense, the Rebels' second-in-the-NCAA passing vs. USU's No. 16 pass defense. Both schools have special special teams.

The winner gets to forget all about its 1-2 record in pre-conference play.The Ags bet their defense can derail a Rebel pass assault that averages an NCAA runner-up 398 yards a game after last week's 635 air yards in a loss to I-AA Idaho (704 total-offense yards).

Asked if a good pass offense can overcome a good pass defense, USU coach Charlie Weatherbie says without hesitation that the secondary wins that battle. "I believe that a good secondary with a great defensive line makes quarterbacks make mistakes," says Weatherbie, an ex-QB who coaches two all-star-type defensive tackles. "If we can get pressure on the quarterback like I believe we can up front, we'll have a great opportunity in the secondary to make interceptions. I think you'll see more interceptions in this game than we've had all year (six)."

"If we do make a mistake, they will score," says senior cornerback Chuck McMillian, "but our whole thing is proper techniques.

"It's going to be a task for them," McMillian predicts. "They have great receivers (Henry Bailey, 18.7 yards a catch; Randy Gatewood, 15.6), but they haven't been roughed up yet; they haven't faced bump-and-run.

"They had problems last year," says McMillian, "with our bump-and-run. We blitz 80 percent of the time, and the quarterback only has three seconds to throw. It takes a receiver 1.5 seconds to get into his route," he says.

Meanwhile, Utah State's fledgling offense has a chance to come alive vs. a Rebel defense that starts two freshmen and a sophomore with nine frosh/sophs on the two-deep.

Weatherbie says the Aggies must avoid turnovers, score each time they get to the 35-yard line or closer (kicker Micah Knorr has field goals of 54, 45 and 33 yards in four tries) and control the ball to help the defense.

That means USU must find its running game against a team that allows 369.7 yards a game on the ground. The Ags have only averaged 44.7 rushing yards behind a patched-up offensive line that showed signs of jelling last week and that should start the same five (Novich Hunter, Darrin Mitchell, Brandon Dyson, Shawn Griswold and John Ogness) as it did last week. It will be the first time the same linemen have started back-to-back games. "They're physically capable of what we're asking them to do," Weatherbie says.

Running back Profail Grier had the best day of his career (29 carries, 209 yards, two TDs) at UNLV in 1993 as USU finally learned how to win a close one - 33-26, with UNLV scoring on three of its four fourth-quarter possessions to bring the game down to an onside kick recovered by USU). From there, USU won five more in a row. In '94, Grier, has averaged only 33.7 yards behind that revolving-door line.