Walking down the steep asphalt ramp from the locker area to the sunken floor of Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, Calif., prior to last Saturday's football game, it hit Kevin Bouwman that this was the beginning of the end.

Ever since his Alta Hawks started out his senior year of high school ranked No. 1 in the state and then got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, Bouwman, now a senior at Utah State, had hungered for a football championship.As the then-1-3 Aggies prepared to meet two-time defending Big West-champion Fresno, 5-1, it occurred to Bouwman that, with USU's 1-0 Big West record and six straight league games to go, this was prime time.

On the ramp, Bouwman, an inside linebacker who calls the Aggie defensive signals, turned to cornerback Greg Haynes, a fellow senior and his roommate back home in Logan. "Greg, this is the last year; it starts right here," Bouwman remembers saying.

The Aggies went on to play what Coach Chuck Shelton called "the best all-around game by far" that a USU team has played in his five years at the school.

Bouwman - too small, too slow to get a football scholarship out of high school but a starter as a walk-on by the third game of his freshman year - was an emotional leader on the field.

"I tried to tone him down in the pregame warmup," says inside linebacker Coach Stan Eggen, who noted that there were still 35 minutes until game time.

Bouwman was officially credited with 13 tackles in the Aggies' 24-24 tie with Fresno that keeps them in the BWC race as they head to San Jose State to meet the other league favorite Saturday. Going through films later, Aggie coaches counted 16 tackles.

Bouwman is now not only Big West Player of the Week but also the career tackling champion of Utah State U.

His 337 career tackles - he has six games yet to play and is averaging close to 10 a game - breaks the 333 mark set by Al Smith, now starting middle linebacker for the Houston Oilers who's had 27 tackles in his last two games.

Bouwman is genuinely humble and a bit embarrassed by the attention. He says, "I'm just amazed to even be up there with Al Smith. The Oilers, I watch them play every week. You hear stories about him. I've met him a couple of times."

Bouwman didn't know until last Thursday that he was even within sight of Smith's tackling record.

Eggen knew but didn't tell him, though he's quick to say it wouldn't have made any difference in Bouwman's performance at Fresno. Bouwman found out anyway from a roommate's girlfriend. "It wasn't at all because of that," Bouwman says. "I was just fired up because it was Fresno, and we needed the win. I wanted to win so bad."

As for comparisons with Smith, "I'm totally different," says Bouwman. "Al is a great athlete, and me, I'm slow and what-not. But he's a hard worker, and I like to think of myself as a hard worker - I'm not blessed with athletic ability; I'm only average."

"My observation," says Eggen, "would be that Kevin may not be the great athlete you're looking for, but when you watch films, you know he's an awfully good player. He makes up with intelligence and intensity."

Bouwman's a game-film freak, always trying to better himself. All players watch films, Bouwman enjoys it, says Eggen. Same with weightlifting. He's a 3.2 student in electrical engineering. He credits Eggen with teaching him the techniques and play-reading abilities that set him apart, that kept him starting for four years, that make him the proverbial "coach on the field."

Bouwman got no football offers when he graduated from Alta. Eggen, also the recruiting coordinator, says USU knew of him but didn't need linebackers then. Bouwman accepted academic and wrestling scholarships and walked onto the football field. He was fifth string in the preseason. Eggen says they were even thinking about him as a noseguard, though it turned out he never got big enough; he's 6-foot-1, 225 now. He'd moved to third-string linebacker by the season opener - at Nebraska. Injuries put him in the game by the third quarter, a green freshman against the 'Huskers. "I was running around like my head was on a swivel," he remembers. "The first play was to the outside, and I went running inside, totally lost. I was thinking, `What am I doing here?"

"We had a lot of players feel that way," says Eggen. Actually, Eggen says, "He was responding really well."

Two weeks later, he was a starter. Even in that first game, says Eggen, "You could see that developing, that he was someone you could count on. He was engulfed by those offensive linemen, but he continued to battle until the whistle blew.

"He's worked for everything he's received," says Eggen, and in counting up the honors that have come Bouwman's way, Eggen adds, "That's a lot." Perhaps the first was just after the Nebraska game when Shelton offered that freshman a football scholarship.