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Yeah, Colorado Plays Notre Dame : Fiesta Bowl: Buffaloes and their coaches are getting all the attention, but Holtz has way of winning.

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

One of the biggest upsets in bowl history took place here this week, even before any of the major games were played. Colorado, which will play Notre Dame in today’s Fiesta Bowl in a sold-out Sun Devil Stadium, reduced the Irish to an afterthought.

Yes, that’s Notre Dame, as in college football’s almighty and all-powerful, the school that turned a television network into a bunch of lap dogs.

Part of it is that the Fighting Irish have distinguished themselves this season by being mostly undistinguished. Had it not been Notre Dame, the 6-4-1 record the Irish posted this season, with the corresponding lack of any national ranking, would have meant a bowl-season trip either to the Poulan Weed Eater or the living room couch.

Colorado, on the other hand, not only goes into the game with a 10-1 record and a No. 4 national ranking, but it carries with it more story lines than a TV soap opera.

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The Buffaloes’ coach, Bill McCartney, winningest in the school’s history and carrying around a long-term contract that would keep him on the Colorado payroll in some form through the year 2015, resigned abruptly Nov. 19.

That resignation came after Colorado’s 41-20 victory over Iowa State, a game in which eventual Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam surpassed the 2,000-yard mark in rushing and star quarterback Kordell Stewart went over the 2,000-yard mark in passing.

Nine days later, Colorado passed over a couple of longtime assistant coaches to name, as its new head coach, 33-year-old Rick Neuheisel, a former UCLA quarterback and former Bruin assistant, who had been with the Buffaloes for one season as quarterback and receivers’ coach and who has no head-coaching experience.

So, when Colorado showed up in the Phoenix area Christmas Day, the press was already salivating. Notre Dame? Oh, that was just the other team, practicing down the road a piece, with the funny little coach who looks more like the school’s gremlin mascot than the mascot itself, telling any reporters bothering to wander by that Colorado might be better than the Dallas Cowboys.

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“I’m sure we can stop those guys,” Holtz said, “just as long as they stay out of bounds, as long as they don’t come onto the field of play, we got ‘em.”

Lost in all this is that Holtz can gain his 200th victory today. That would make him only the 15th college coach--and the sixth active--to do that.

But while Holtz, who will be 58 on Friday, shows no signs of slowing down, McCartney, 54, called it quits with a 92-55-5 record, going into the Fiesta Bowl, and with three Big Eight titles and a share of one national title in 1990. McCartney, a deeply religious man, said that he had coached enough and spent enough time away from his wife, Lyndi, and his family and now it was time for them.

“After this game, you won’t be able to find me, in Boulder or anywhere. I’m gonna disappear,” McCartney said. “I’ve got two goals: to be intimate with the Lord and with Lyndi.”

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McCartney has been emotional and relaxed this week, pushing his team less and stressing the fun aspect of a bowl experience. He even took some time to have some fun with the media after Saturday’s practice, his last such full-scale session at Colorado.

“I just told my team, I hope none of them becomes a media,” McCartney joked. “They asked me which one of you guys I wanted wasted (as a going-away present) and I said all of you.”

But McCartney, looking for that ever-elusive edge right to the end, also used the occasion to praise Holtz and boost Notre Dame.

“It’s not just the thing that everybody talks about, about how Holtz with a month to prepare a team is so tough,” McCartney said. “It’s more that Notre Dame, top to bottom, has so much talent that when you give them a month of practices, with all those skilled players, they’ve got to get so much better.

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“Notre Dame is the greatest place in the world to recruit. They hand-pick their players. We have to chase ours.”

Nevertheless, Colorado has chased quite successfully in the last few years. The Buffaloes were third in rushing offense and total offense and seventh in scoring offense in the nation. Salaam led the nation in rushing with an average of 186.8 yards a game and Stewart was 11th in passing and 10th in total offense. Michael Westbrook, expected to be either the first or second wide receiver taken in the pro draft, along with J.J. Stokes of UCLA, gained an average of 76.6 yards a game receiving, 23rd in the nation.

Notre Dame normally would counter Colorado’s passing with All-American cornerback Bobby Taylor, but he has been suspended for the game by Holtz for selling game tickets for the USC game at the Coliseum on Nov. 26.

In addition, Colorado was 15th in the nation in rushing defense, giving up an average of only 114.2 yards a game. That means that Notre Dame’s strength, a rushing game featuring elusive Lee Becton and steamrollering Ray Zellars that produced an average of 215.6 yards a game, will be going against one of Colorado’s many strengths.

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That could leave the burden of Irish heroics to redshirt freshman quarterback Ron Powlus, who, while setting a school record with 19 touchdown passes, has not yet made the Irish faithful forget Johnny Lujack, nor even Johnny Huarte. Powlus has passed for 1,729 yards, but nine interceptions have hurt him and his team.

So this game, which is unlikely to have any bearing on a national-title picture but also likely to have the top television viewing audience of any bowl game, thanks to Notre Dame’s huge national fan base, might just develop into a sideline show. Holtz will be marching back and forth and fidgeting, while McCartney, very mellow in his last coaching hours, might just quietly take it all in for his memory bank.

His team is hoping it plays so well that he can do just that.

“I want, more than anything else,” said linebacker Matt Russell, “to carry him off that field a winner.”

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FIESTA BOWL

TODAY’S GAME

* Teams: Colorado vs. Notre Dame.

* Site: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

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* Time: 1:30 p.m. PST.

* Records: Colorado 10-1, N.D. 6-4-1.

* TV: Ch. 4.

* Radio: KGRB (900).

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