A Fair-Weather Player, Pace Is Hot for Trojans : College football: Born in South Bend and recruited by Notre Dame, safety chose USC and is a leader of its revitalized defense.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stephon Pace was so small when he was born 22 years ago in South Bend, Ind., his mother used to joke that she was going to give him to the cats.

Her sister-in-law advised against it.

"She'd laugh and say, 'You're not going to give him to the cats; Stephon is going to play for Notre Dame,' " Martha Pace said.

And, lo and behold, Pace grew up strong, fast and talented enough to be recruited by the Fighting Irish, but he chose instead to play for their rival, USC.

As a senior and third-year starter this season, the 6-foot, 190-pound safety is one of the leaders of a revitalized Trojan defense.

After giving up an average of 386.6 yards last season, USC has yielded only 287.7 this season while compiling a 1-1-1 record going into Saturday's game against Oregon at the Coliseum. The Trojans are 12th in the nation against the pass.

Pace scored the winning points in the 20-10 victory over Oklahoma last month at Norman, returning a fumble 19 yards for a touchdown with 10:17 to play. He later intercepted a pass, setting up USC's third touchdown.

Second on the team with 18 tackles, Pace also had an interception during last Saturday's 17-10 loss to Washington at Seattle.

"He's the biggest difference in our defense, the way he's playing and the leadership he's showing," Coach Larry Smith said.

Said Bob Cope, who coaches the Trojans' secondary: "I don't think there's a defensive back in the country playing any better than he is right now."

Pace is not playing for Notre Dame, in large part, because his family moved west from South Bend when he was 3 months old, settling in Duarte.

"We decided it was too cold," said his mother, who had lived in South Bend with her husband, Melvin, for about 14 months after moving from Prentiss, Miss.

Still, when the oldest of her two sons received a letter from Notre Dame during his junior year at Bishop Amat High in La Puente, Martha Pace could barely contain her excitement.

She has about 30 relatives living in South Bend.

"When the first letter came in, oh my Lord! I said, 'You got a letter from Notre Dame, you've got to fill it out,' " she said. "And he said, 'OK,' but every one he got, on the way to school, he threw it out the window.

"He never sent the application. He didn't want any part of Notre Dame, but I kind of wanted him to go there because the name sounds so big, and we had lived there."

Pace, of course, had ties to South Bend, and thought of it as a nice place to visit.

But he didn't want to live there.

He grew up in Duarte, where he was introduced to sports by his parents.

When Pace was 4, they signed him up for a youth league in Arcadia, where he played football, basketball, baseball and soccer.

Basketball is still his favorite--he was a four-year varsity player at Bishop Amat--but Pace realized after his junior year in high school that he probably had a brighter future in football.

"In basketball, not many people my size make it to the NBA, or have a great career at it," he said. "I figured I had a better chance, if I had a chance, in football."

His suspicion was confirmed when he started receiving calls from college football recruiters.

Pace was partial to Nebraska.

He ruled out signing with the Cornhuskers, however, when ice formed on his windshield during a recruiting trip to Lincoln.

He also visited Washington, but he didn't like the weather in Seattle, either. Nor did he like all the water that surrounds the city. He almost drowned as a child and has been afraid of water ever since, his mother said.

Ultimately, it came down to USC and UCLA.

When he couldn't decide, he told his father during the fall of 1987 that he would go to whichever school won the USC-UCLA game.

So, when Erik Affholter made a controversial, juggling catch in the back of the end zone to give USC a 17-13 victory, it not only sent the Trojans to the Rose Bowl, it also gave them a defensive back.

Pace moved into the starting lineup as a third-year sophomore, helping to frustrate UCLA again that season by intercepting a pass by Tommy Maddox and returning it 27 yards for a touchdown during a 45-42 Trojan victory.

He was USC's No. 3 tackler as a sophomore, No. 2 last season.

Versatile enough to play all four defensive backfield positions, Pace has been the leader of the Trojans' secondary for 2 1/2 seasons.

"I feel old because some of the young guys don't understand what it takes to get back to where we were," he said. "Sometimes, it's frustrating."

Pace grew so frustrated during USC's 3-8 season a year ago that he tried to do too much, often taking himself out of position and ultimately hurting the defense.

"I was just trying to make plays and help us win," he said. "I wasn't doing things to be selfish, but I did things I'm not doing this year because we're a better team."

Playing a big part in the improvement has been Pace.

"He is playing great football," Cope said. "He was a very fine player last year, but he is playing much, much better this year. His play has just been outstanding.

"He's really channeling his efforts and his energies into executing his responsibilities. And when he's in the right place, doing the right things, he's going to make plays because he has a lot of God-given ability."

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