Matching its school's reputation as an eclectic university, the Stanford football team that will meet Wisconsin on Saturday in the Rose Bowl is an eclectic group.

To wit:

* Its Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Troy Walters, who is working on a master's degree in sociology, probably would not be at Stanford if his father didn't have an office next to now-Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham's when both were on the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff.

* Freshman running back Kerry Carter hails from Canada, an unlikely hotbed of American football, and all but one game of his final high school season was canceled because of a teachers strike.

* Randy Fasani, the nation's No. 1 quarterback recruit in 1997, has played inside linebacker and on special teams and remains the Cardinal's third-string quarterback.

* Outside linebacker and long snapper John Sande is the son of John Sande, the starting center for Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett on the 1970 Stanford team that won the Rose Bowl.

* Defensive line coach Dave Tipton was a member of that 1970 Stanford team's famed "Thunderchickens" defense.

This heterogeneous group from 27 states has blended together, improving from 3-8 in 1998 to 8-3 this season, Willingham's fourth at Stanford but the first since 1971 in which the Cardinal has won an outright Pacific-10 Conference championship.

"The common denominator is what Coach Willingham has brought--the hard work and believing in one another," Walters said. "Everybody on this team has had to overcome a lot. A lot of schools passed up a lot of these guys. That's brought us together. The doubt from the outside world--them saying we can't do anything has brought us closer. . . . We all realize we have to play as a team [because] we don't have enough athletes and talent to play as individuals. If we play as a team and collectively and everything comes together, we're a tough team to beat."

That desire for togetherness has raised some potentially interesting possibilities concerning several top players who are injured but might play Saturday anyway.

Walters suffered a dislocated right wrist during Tuesday's practice, but on Thursday was musing about the possibility of suiting up and making at least a cameo appearance. Today, he was the focus on perhaps wishful comments from Willingham, who said, "We're still hoping he'll be able to play."

Willingham also said today there is a strong possibility that the Cardinal's top defensive player, tackle Willie Howard, will play, but he is not certain how much. Howard, who was named the Pac-10's defensive lineman of the year, suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the regular season finale against Notre Dame on Nov. 27, and initially was ruled out for the Rose Bowl.

Willingham said all-Pac-10 center Mike McLaughlin "is probably the biggest question mark we have on our football team." McLaughlin suffered a knee injury during Tuesday's practice but also might play.

The team's motto is "One team plus one goal equals one bowl," and it has been emblazoned on T-shirts as "1T+1G=1B."

Togetherness has its limits, though. The Cardinal was 110th in total defense among the nation's 114 Division I-A teams, allowing 452.8 yards per game. Wisconsin has punishing, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ron Dayne, who rumbled for 246 yards and four touchdowns in last season's 38-31 Rose Bowl victory over UCLA.

"We need to do the basics, be fundamentally sound and protect the football," Willingham said. "In our case, that means don't turn it over and find ways to create turnovers on what appears to be a very conservative team."

Stanford's success stems from its offense, which set single-season school records for points (409, 37.2 per game, sixth in the nation) and yards (5,138, 467.1 per game, fifth in the nation).

Senior quarterback Todd Husak's ability to lead this complicated, pass-oriented attack helped him become the first Stanford quarterback since John Elway in 1982 to be selected to the all-Pac-10 first team.

Even without Walters, Husak still will have two talented targets, DeRonnie Pitts and Dave Davis. When Walters was sidelined for parts of all of five games in 1998, Pitts caught 74 passes for 1,012 yards. "I'm one of the best receivers nobody knows about," Pitts told the Los Angeles Times this past week. "I guess I get to show that on national television."

Stanford is the latest in a series of unlikely teams to reach the Rose Bowl. A game that once routinely matched Southern California against Ohio State or Michigan has seen interlopers such as Northwestern and Washington State in recent years.

This season's team took advantage of a down year for the Pac-10 (the conference had no ranked teams for several weeks this season). But to Willingham, the Cardinal also built on a foundation laid late last season, when it won its final two games after losing eight of its first nine.

"I noticed that at the conclusion of the '98 season that our young men felt pretty good about what they thought they had accomplished," Willingham said. "I thought that's a rare sign, almost a fearful sign from a coach's standpoint. I think our guys were confident and felt like if they did certain things right during the '99 season, we could have a good football team."

But there was little outside indication the Cardinal would be ending its Rose Bowl drought this season. It was picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 in the preseason media poll and opened the season with a 69-17 loss at Texas Sept. 4, the second-worst loss in school history.

However, the following week, Stanford routed Washington State 54-17. And the week after that, it went to Tucson and pounded Pac-10 preseason favorite and then-No. 19 Arizona 50-22.

"That's when we knew we had something special," Walters said.

After improving to 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 1971 with a 42-32 victory over UCLA on Sept. 25, the Cardinal's credibility was damaged by a 44-39 nonconference loss at home to San Jose State on Oct. 2, a game Husak missed because of bruised ribs.

Stanford won its next two games, then lost to Washington, 35-30, on Oct. 30, when the defense allowed 670 yards and Huskies quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo became the first player in NCAA history to run for 200 yards and pass for 300 in the same game.

But Washington lost to UCLA, 23-20, in overtime on Nov. 13, and Stanford clinched the Rose Bowl berth with victories over Arizona State and California. It concluded the regular season by defeating Notre Dame, 40-37, Nov. 27, when Walters caught two touchdown passes and Mike Biselli kicked a 22-yard field goal as time expired.

CAPTION: "A lot of schools passed up a lot of these guys," all-American wide receiver Troy Walters says of his Stanford teammates. "That's brought us together."