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Mike Delnagro
August 31, 1981
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August 31, 1981

The Top 20

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A year ago Stanford, a 15-point underdog, blitzed Oklahoma 31-14. Then, as an 18-point favorite, Stanford was dumped 28-23 by California. Though the Cardinals ranked high among national leaders in passing (sixth), total offense (seventh) and scoring (15th), they ended the year with a 6-5 record and no invitation to a bowl. Things will change this fall at Palo Alto.

But not on offense, where once again John Elway, now a junior, will ring up numbers faster than a digital supermarket checkout gizmo. Last year Elway, a .361-hitting outfielder who so far has rejected big-buck offers from the New York Yankees, completed 248 of 379 passes for 2,889 yards and 27 touchdowns. He broke a Pac-10 record with six TD passes against Oregon State and tied an NCAA mark by throwing four scoring passes in the first quarter. He was the first sophomore named Pac-10 Player of the Year and the first sophomore All-America at quarterback since Northwestern's Tom Meyers 18 years ago. Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said, after the wipeout of his Sooners in Norman: "Elway put on the greatest exhibition of quarterback play and passing I have ever seen in this stadium." At 6'4", 202 pounds and growing, Elway can also carry the ball when necessary. And nobody hurries him out of the pocket, from which, not incidentally, he can look out at an army of gifted receivers.

All-America Ken Margerum is gone, but Andre Tyler, who led Stanford—and co-led the Pac-10—with 53 receptions, is back. Tyler's style—cutting cute patterns under the coverage—mixes well with that of Flanker Mike Tolliver, whose explosive running reminds folks of former Cardinal and current Dallas Cowboy Tony Hill. Back, too, is Darrin Nelson, who twice has caught 50 passes and rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season; he missed doing so last year (47 receptions, 889 yards rushing) only because an ankle sprain kept him out of 1� games, a bruised hip, out of another. That Stanford has an offense its fans love to watch is no news. What is, is that it might not have a defense rival teams love to see. Coach Paul Wiggin has taken drastic steps. First, he instituted a rigorous year-round weightlifting program. Then he junked his old "read-and-react" style in favor of an "attack technique" that calls for a lot of linebacker free-lancing similar to that of the Oakland Raiders. Though the defense gets back eight starters, two of them, Linebacker Dave Morze and Safety Kevin MacMillan, may well lose their jobs to junior Gary Wimmer and senior Pete St. Geme. And somebody else will be out of his job, too, if freshman Nose Guard Terry Jackson, a 6'7", 260-pound high school All-America defensive tackle from Washington, D.C., lives up to his press clippings. "I feel better about this defense," says Wiggin. "I think you'll see improvement."

Which means, of course, that Stanford's foes might be seeing even more of Elway.


The curly-haired, bull-necked super quarterback ducked into the locker room one day last spring and out came plain old Jim McMahon, mild-mannered, bookish and bespectacled BYU communications major. "I felt strange out there in practice," he said. "I'm a senior, and I'm surrounded by a lot of new faces. We lost 21 seniors off last year's team, a lot of people who made me look good."

On the field, McMahon wears neither glasses nor contact lenses, and his vision is only 20-60 in his right eye; he stuck a fork in it when he was six. "I can make out the colors of the jerseys O.K.," he jokes. And William Tell knew that apple he had to hit was the red thing.

Just how good did McMahon look last year, anyway? Well, statistically, if not esthetically, he looked like the best passing quarterback in college football history. He became the first, since Tulsa's Jerry Rhome in 1964, to lead the nation in passing efficiency and total yardage, setting a few NCAA records along the way—like 32 of them. Consider just a few: 47 touchdown passes (17 more than runner-up Joe Adams of Tennessee State); 4,571 yards gained passing (1,648 more than runner-up Mark Herrmann of Purdue and 851 more than the record set by BYU's Marc Wilson in 1979); an average gain of 10.27 yards per pass attempt (his completion percentage was a whopping, though not record-breaking, 63.8%). Also, he enters 1981 with a string of 12 games in which he has passed for more than 300 yards. Nevertheless, McMahon is not satisfied. "I haven't reached my full potential," he says, "I want to do better this season. I expect to do better."

That may be difficult, all the more so because BYU's offensive coordinator, Doug Scovil, who developed McMahon as well as predecessors Marc Wilson and Gifford Nielsen—now with Oakland and Houston, respectively—has become head coach at San Diego State. But BYU will pass 75% of the time, and McMahon may do better if Head Coach LaVell Edwards finds a few new pass receivers. Gone are the two top pass catchers from last season, Running Back Scott Phillips (60 receptions, an indication of just what "running back" means in Cougar argot) and Tight End Clay Brown, 48 for 1,009 yards and 15 touchdowns. Junior Brad Hardisty will start at tight end, while junior Scott Pettis, who averaged 10.4 yards on 27 carries last year, moves into the starting backfield; Pettis was issued a catcher's mitt. The best of McMahon's returning targets is Wide Receiver Danny Plater, a speedster who caught eight touchdown passes in 1980. However, the BYU offensive line is inexperienced, and McMahon may lack for pocket time.

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