PALO ALTO--Stanford's football program is apparently rejuvenated. The Cardinal, 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the Pacific 10, has the prospect of its first winning season in six years, along with a possible bowl bid.
Coach Jack Elway's team could take a significant step toward that goal by beating USC today at Stanford Stadium.
Stanford alumni are excited about the team, but there is apathy among the student body, according to Chris Weber, a senior inside linebacker.
"We've never had great fans," he said. "A recent article in our school newspaper said in essence that Stanford students don't cheer much and they're proud of it. It was ridiculous. Our fans are the worst."
There's a longstanding notion that Stanford students put more emphasis on the school's academic image than on any success in athletics.
"They think they're above cheering," Weber said. "I've seen a lot of seniors come through the program and their major complaint is our fans. Traditionally, Cal will come into our stadium, and we'll give their fans a corner of our end zone and they'll outcheer us, or anyone that comes here."
But Weber said the football team doesn't necessarily need to be motivated by the student body.
"We're not out there playing for anybody but ourselves," he said. "I'm going to play as hard as I can even if no one shows. My teammates believe in me and I believe in them, and we know we're a good team."
So it seems. Stanford's defense, which has been ridiculed in other years, is now drawing favorable comparisons to the "Thunder Chickens" of the early '70s, when Stanford last played in the Rose Bowl.
Images resist change, and Stanford has traditionally been identified nationally as a team with a pro-style passing attack and a defense that yields more points than the offense can score.
For example, Stanford gave up an average of 28.5 points a game in 1985 while the offense accounted for an average of 22.3. The Cardinal is now allowing an average of 13 points, tops in the Pacific 10, and the offense is averaging 25.
"It basically comes down to the fact we've had three years to grow and mature in the same defensive package," Weber said. "In my first year, we had a 4-3 defense and not much time to learn it, so we made a lot of mistakes. Then Dick Mannini (defensive coordinator) came in with his package, a 3-4 defense, and we've all grown accustomed to it.
"It's been a long time since we've had good D here. We're now winning games for our offense. We've always had a high-powered offense, and now the defense is putting the offense back on the field much quicker with better scoring opportunities."
Weber said Stanford has future defensive stars in redshirt freshman tackle Lester Archambeau and sophomore nose guard Ray Huckenstein to complement such veterans as inside linebacker Dave Wyman, free safety Walt Harris and cornerback Toi Cook, who has been sidelined with a broken wrist but is expected to play today.
Wyman, who was inactive last year with a knee injury, is the inspirational leader of Stanford's defense. He also leads the team in tackles with 86.
Elway has endured two losing seasons since replacing Paul Wiggin. Now, all the parts seems to be falling into place.
"When we came in, we wanted to recruit a complete football team and we have had the greatest improvement on defense," Elway said. "Offensively, we wanted some balance between the running and passing game, and we're much better balanced than last year. I had a feeling earlier that we were going to surprise a lot of teams as the season progressed."
Stanford doesn't rely solely on a quarterback's arm, as it has in the past. Versatile fullback Brad Muster takes some pressure off quarterback John Paye by averaging 4.2 yards a carry. He is also Paye's primary target, having caught 37 passes and averaging 10 yards per catch.
Elway said he wouldn't trade Paye for any other quarterback in the country. Asked to compare him with his son, John Elway, the former Stanford star and now a potential All-Pro quarterback with the Denver Broncos, Elway said:
"John Paye doesn't have the size of John Elway, but he's just as mobile. His arm is strong, though not quite as strong as John Elway's, and he's accurate. They even look alike."
Paye, a sometimes starting guard on the basketball team, doesn't fluster easily. He has thrown 206 passes with only 6 interceptions. That's an average of 1 interception in 34 passes.
As for USC, 4-2 overall and 2-2 in the conference, it's another important game--only this time against a team that it has beaten regularly in the past. The Trojans haven't lost to Stanford since 1975 and haven't lost at Palo Alto since 1970.