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THERE ARE different ways to win a college football game. You can win by blowing the other team off the field. You can win by coming through in the closing seconds. You can win by forfeit.

But the most excruciating way of all is by winning ugly.Winning ugly is any game in which neither team exactly sets the standard for excellence. You make dumb plays and get away with it, botch up others completely, and generally look confused and disoriented, like when the phone wakes you 20 minutes into your sleep. When the caller asks if he woke you up, you say, "Umgrmpf . . . I mean, Oh heavens no! I was just, uh, cleaning out my garage."

Saturday was one of those days for the University of Utah football team, which came away with a 21-7 win over Texas Christian at Rice Stadium, in spite of itself. Except for the three lost fumbles, the interception, the missed field goal and the offense that couldn't decide whether it really wanted to be there, everything was fine. Couldn't have been better. Piece of cake.

"These guys," sighed Utah coach Ron McBride, "will makeyou crazy."

With the exception of a two-game span in September, the Utes have been hovering on the dangerous side of crazy all year. They're nationally ranked, 6-1, leading the WAC's Mountain Division and still can't seem to figure themselves out. They're as enigmatic as solar energy, their potential limitless. Getting them to work efficiently, every time out, though, is another matter.

"I'm not ecstatic," continued McBride, when asked how he felt about his team's performance. "I'm not jumping over buildings."

If McBride sounds overly cautious for a man whose team is rolling along with a six-game win streak, consider this: in the past two games they've been taken to the limit in beating a pair of below-average college football teams (TCU and UTEP). Other than the 45-17 win over Fresno State and the 45-42 win over Kansas, they have looked strangely vulnerable. Their offense has been spotty and and out of sync. They won Saturday's game on three big plays: a 41-yards scoring pass to Kevin Dyson and touchdown runs of 70 and 52 yards by Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. Other than that, it could have been a shutout. They never executed a single sustained drive.

Utah's defense gave up 42 points to Kansas - a hefty total to allow even a good team - and 27 to UTEP - a team that would have trouble scoring against the Keebler Elves.

"We need to put together a dominant game and show we're a team that belongs in the Top 25," said linebacker Armand Boglin.

While Utah's problems with UTEP could be chalked up to fatigue and injuries after six straight games - four on the road - Saturday's effort was much more perplexing. Late in the first quarter Utah return man Harold Lusk fumbled a punt, setting up TCU's only score. On the next play a face-masking penalty gave TCU the ball on Utah's 13 yard line.

Nine seconds after TCU scored, Fuamatu-Ma'afala fumbled, giving the Horned Frogs the ball back. Then with 9:02 left in the half, Boo Bendinger caught a 14-yard pass but fumbled the ball away again. Suddenly the Utes were in the Twilight Zone, working hard but going no place. Their biggest obstacle was themselves.

Ute kicker Daniel Pulsipher missed on a 39-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter and quarterback Mike Fouts threw an interception at the start of the third quarter. You kept waiting for the director to shout, "Cut! Let's try it again once more from the top!" The Utes were looking for all the world like they used last week's bye to vacation in Barbados.

Fortunately for the Utes, whatever they did badly, the Horned Frogs did worse. Kicker Michael Reeder, a consensus all-America, had one field goal attempt blocked and missed two others. All totaled, the Utes handed the ball over to TCU four times from inside the 50, yet the Frogs could get only the one touchdown. In part the win was due to Utah's defensive effort, in part due to TCU's dreadful offense.

What exactly is wrong with the Utes, and why they're winning ugly, is anyone's guess. Last week they had inspirational speakers troop through the football offices nearly every day, stressing the need to be ready. But when Saturday arrived, cold and gloomy, so were the Utes.

"I don't know why," added Boglin, "but we just keep letting people stay in the game."

Thus, the Utes continued along their bumpy journey, still wondering why they can't take the bad teams serious. And who rang the phone just when they were getting comfortable.