Chuck Shelton remembers some pretty big victories since he's been football coach at Utah State: 1987 wins over Utah and Fresno State, a 1986 7-6 victory over UNLV "when we didn't have nearly the talent they did."

Tonight, well, a win over San Jose State in Spartan Stadium (7 p.m. MDT) "would have to rank very high," Shelton says.He's being cautious. San Jose is 3-0 in the Big West, 4-2-1 overall against a strong nonleague slate. Utah State is 1-0-1 in the conference, 1-3-1 overall also against a strong nonleague slate.

"Oh boy," says defensive coordinator Fred Bleil, "is this ever a hard one and a good one, but it's a position we wanted to be in. It puts somebody in first place in the conference, and it could be us or them."

But this game is not just an early struggle for the Big West lead.

"It's a program game," Shelton admits.

A loss might not put the Aggies out of business, but a win would do wonders for their public image in this tough season as well as for Shelton's future tenure.

"There comes a time in your program when you have to tell it the way it is, and that's the way we'll approach this game. If we could win that football game . . . we could use it as a catalyst for a lot of things, so it's an important game," Shelton says.

"That does not," he cracks, "make San Jose as bad a team as I'd like them to be, however."

San Jose is, in fact, probably the best team in the conference.

"Position by position, we would be hard-pressed to match up with them," says Shelton, "but that doesn't mean things can't happen."

That's how the Aggies neutralized two-time defending league champion Fresno last week, although San Jose seems now like a better team than the Bulldogs. Utah State took away Fresno's game plan early, running on the Bulldogs and picking off their blitzes with big-play passing gains, taking advantage of their penalties.

Utah State made a few mistakes of its own against Fresno, using the wrong plays or coverages at the wrong times, making a couple poorly advised personal-foul penalties, and still came out tied.

That can't happen against the Spartans, says Shelton, who says the Aggies need to be better in those respects to have a shot. "What we have to do is execute and not do the things we can't do," he says.

Still, he says, "If we can match our Fresno game, I'd have to live with the outcome."

Matching the Fresno game means being fired up emotionally. After all, they're meeting a San Jose team that will be high, too - this is the first time the Spartans have led the conference standings outright since 1987.

The Aggies have the same kind of high. "The last two years," says senior linebacker Kevin Bouwman, "we'd go in to play Fresno and lose and play San Jose a couple weeks later, but now we tied Fresno, and we're still in control of our destiny."

"Our practices have been exhuberant," says Bleil. "Real intense and high spirited."

"It's been a pretty good week," agrees Behrns, "but you try to control it a little; you don't want to waste it on practice."

On defense, Bleil's troops must contend with the top all-purpose runner in the nation, Sheldon Canley, and the No. 7 total-offense man in the nation, quarterback Ralph Martini. "They do things quite a bit different than Fresno," says Bleil. Martini's a dropback passer, not a scrambler. Bleil says the Aggies hope to stop Canley short on early downs and zone blitz on third down to make Martini scramble. Martini's passes, says Bleil, are either short or long, most to wideouts, with few midrange throws.

Canley stands second to Grant in conference rushing numbers. Grant, No. 9 nationally, has a 118.2-yard average, and Canley, No. 10 nationally, gets 116.43 a game. Grant's 292 yards against Long Beach was the fourth-highest single game in Big West history; Canley's 253 against LBS last week is No. 7 on the league hit parade. Grant's 197 last week against Fresno is the third-best performance in the league this year, behind his and Canley's Long Beach totals.