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SONNY SKIES

In any other season, a gust of wind or an act of God would have steered the visitors' last-ditch field goal try through the uprights. In any other season, the Colorado State Rams--the Rodney Dangerfields of football on the high plains--would again have found themselves reeling off to the dressing room in a funk, there to slam helmets against lockers, drop weary heads between knees and curse their fate.

But on Saturday the ball sailed wide right. It was San Diego State placekicker Peter Holt who left the field with his chin planted on his number. It was CSU head coach Sonny Lubick who got the Gatorade shower. It was the Rams who pulled out a close one, 19-17. This time they had survived all the old horrors--a dropped touchdown pass, a muffed punt, a failed rush on fourth-and-one and a bout of heat exhaustion that struck their best pass receiver.

This time the Rams had even overcome another bizarre call by the notorious referees of the Western Athletic Conference, a call which handed a third-quarter, go-ahead touchdown to the San Diegans after a partially blocked CSU punt. In fact, that fired the Rams up.

Can you keep a secret?
The Rams' win Saturday gave them a 4-0 record, their best start in seventeen years. Going back to last season, they have now won seven straight--equaling a school mark set in 1928. After upsetting mighty Brigham Young on the road September 17, the Rams crept into the twenty-fifth and final spot in the USA Today/CNN coaches' poll, their first national ranking since 1977. Until Saturday, their staunch defense hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since 1992. Including Marshall Faulk.

On the normally placid Fort Collins campus, green-and-gold-clad crazies are sprouting like spring flowers, and in his second year, Lubick is being hailed as the messiah who will finally heal CSU's bruised and abused football program.

You can feel a new surge of current. On Saturday the traffic outside cozy Hughes Stadium was so jammed up that thousands didn't get inside until the middle of the second quarter. The Rams sold hundreds of standing-room tickets. With 32,618 fans crammed into the place, concessionaires ran out of food.

"Couple of problems," said new athletic director Tom Jurich. "Good problems that we'll be happy to fix."

This Saturday the team will take on winless New Mexico in Albuquerque. On October 8 they face their biggest road test in twenty years--the ferocious Desert Swarm defense of sixth-ranked Arizona. But even if the Rams lose that one, they have a great shot at their first-ever WAC title and a trip to the Holiday Bowl.

"Everything's different this year," says junior fullback E.J. Watson. "We're playing very focused. We believe in each other. We believe in our coaches. We believe we can win every time out."

So everything's fine, right?
Well, yes. If you don't mind the curse of second-class citizenship.
The Rams may be 4-0, opponents' field goals may be hooking wide at last, and Sonny Lubick may be the Second Coming of Vince Lombardi. But whatever dreams CSU fans had Saturday afternoon of stealing the local football limelight lasted about an hour and a half. That's how long it was before Michael Westbrook made The Catch. You know. Number 7 Colorado against Number 4 Michigan. National television. Six seconds left. Kordell Stewart back. Sixty-four-yard desperation bomb. Carom off the pads. Westbrook in the end zone. Hands out. Touchdown. Miracle. CU 27, Michigan 26.

Try knocking that off Page One. Or out of Ron Zappolo's mouth.
But then, that's how it's always been. Colorado's Golden Buffaloes, powerhouses who have spent 89 straight weeks in the national polls, who beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, who have made 43 national and regional TV appearances since 1985, are the Big Men on Campus in this state. They are the guys who knock CSU into the shadows even when they don't bother to play them.

In fact, it's been easy for Coloradans in general to ignore the Rams. After all, isn't CSU the school that, back in its early days as Colorado Agricultural College, used to have a cheer that went: "Hayseed, turnip, pumpkin, squash. CAC we are, by gosh!"

Isn't this the place where, if you look just beyond the rim of the stadium, you can still see horses and sheep grazing?

Isn't this the team that went 2-21 in 1987 and 1988 under Leon Fuller? Isn't this the school that indulged the last, stormy reign of ex-Ohio State tyrant Earle Bruce? And that so alienated its fans with poor teams and bad attitudes in recent years that the faithful stayed away in droves?

Well, that's over. Almost like magic. Players say they will lie down in the road for their smart, savvy, modest new coach, who was CSU's offensive coordinator from 1982 to 1984 before stints as an assistant at Stanford and Miami. Last year Lubick got the Rams to 5-6, including those three straight wins at the end of the season, and the fans have returned.

"Our first goal was to get the community back," said athletic director Jurich. "They've seen a lot of turmoil in the last few years, and we really wanted to overcome that."

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