A football team that has won 35 of its last 45 games, three Southwest Conference titles and made three Cotton Bowl appearances in four years can easily get spoiled.

Picked to win another conference championship this season, the University of Houston suffered through a nightmarish season and is a bit embarrassed at taking its 6-5 record into Sunday's Garden State Bowl game against Navy (8-3) at the Meadowlands.

But quarterback Terry Elston said a wounded Cougar can be "a very dangerous animal," and Navy will be in trouble if it thinks Houston is a mediocre team.

"This is a redeeming game for us," said the 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior, who is playing again after missing five games with a dislocated wrist. "We were highly thought of at the beginning of the year and people thought we'd win by just showing up. Some of the players thought so, too.

"Injuries, inexperience, turnovers and a poor frame of mind killed us. We feel very fortunate to even get a bowl bid. This is the last chance to show folks that Houston is a good team."

The Cougars have talent. The defensive linemen, all-America Len Mitchell, Hose Taylor and Terry Monroe, are big and strong. Because of their consistent play, Houston's rushing defense has been outstanding.

"We started pretty slow but came on strong near the end of the year," said the 6-7, 280-pound Mitchell, who is a likely NFL first-round draft pick. "We began to turn things around when Hose (6-5, 250) was moved in at noseguard. That put Terry (Monroe) on the field and teams couldn't double-team us. I'm a little hot because Hose didn't make all-America. He deserved it."

Navy, a strong running team, will have enough problems without contending with an angry Mitchell.

"We know Houton is much better than their record indicates," said Mid tailback Ed Meyers, who needs only 43 yards to reach 1,000 this season. "But they can be beaten; they've been beaten. We aren't going to go through the motions because it's a bowl game. We want to win, too."

Houston has been on a season-long roller coaster. It lost four of its first five games, tow of them to conference foes Baylor (24-12) and Texas A&M (17-13). The Cougars bounced back to nip SMU, 13-11, and Arkansas, 24-17.

Just when they thought they were on the right track, injuries wiped out half of the offensive line and Coach Bill Yeoman was sending in plays to his fourth-string quarterback.

"In my 19 years, i have never had more than one quarterback go down, much less three," Yeoman said. "We run the veer offense and the quarterback is very, very important. Without an experienced quarterback in the game, it makes your offense look very bad."

With little if any offense, the Cougars had to depend on Mitchell, Taylor and friends to keep opponents out of the end zone while coming up with a turnover or three.