Florida State coach Bobby Bowden has long been known as one of college football's biggest risk-takers, the man who put fumblerooskies into his offensive playbook right along with straight dives and quick traps.
But will Bowden be taking the ultimate gamble -- one that could cost the top-ranked Seminoles a shot at the national championship -- by using quarterback Charlie Ward and linebacker Derrick Brooks against Maryland Saturday at Byrd Stadium?
Ward, the runaway favorite for this year's Heisman Trophy, sustained bruised ribs toward the end of the first half in last week's 54-0 victory over Wake Forest. Brooks had been Florida State's defensive star before injuring his neck in last month's 28-10 win over Miami. He has missed the past two games.
With his team's much-anticipated Nov. 13 showdown against No. 2 Notre Dame in South Bend clearly in sight, Bowden must decide whether it's worth chancing further injury to Ward or Brooks or to any of his other players who might not be at full strength this week.
"My feeling is that some people would hold 'em out," Bowden said yesterday by telephone from Tallahassee, Fla. "But that's the way you get upset or try to minimize an opponent. If the doctors feel he [Ward] is completely healthy, he will start. If they have any reluctance, he will not. But if my players see that I'm holding him out even if he's OK, they might not take this game seriously."
Brooks has received doctor's clearance to play against the 42-point underdog Terrapins, but Bowden isn't certain about Ward. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior was expected back at practice Monday, but had trouble during warm-ups and spent most of the time in the trainer's room receiving treatment. Bowden will decide tomorrow whether Ward will play.
"I was a little disappointed because I expected Charlie to step right back in and have only a little discomfort," said Bowden.
After sitting out drills and throwing lightly on the sidelines yesterday, Ward said: "Based on today, I wouldn't play. But I still have two or three more days to get healthy."
Truth is, Bowden probably doesn't need either Ward or Brooks to beat the undermanned and overmatched Terrapins, who have been shut out twice in the past three games by teams (Clemson and Georgia Tech) that were among Florida State's four shutout victims so far this season. The Seminoles will be going after a school-record fifth shutout.
In fact, Brooks wouldn't mind seeing Ward stay on the sidelines in order to avoid aggravating his injury. "I think Charlie needs the week's rest," said Brooks. "With our type of offense, I think we're going to put points on the board this week no matter who is at quarterback."
Considering how overwhelming a favorite the undefeated Seminoles (8-0, 6-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) are over Maryland (1-7, 1-4), Bowden could use Ward and Brooks only if the game is still close in the second half. And considering the Terps' game in Tallahassee last year -- Florida State won, 69-21 -- Ward and Brooks probably won't be needed.
"We have not played a game the past two years where Charlie Ward did not start at quarterback," said Bowden. "I don't know what effect it would have. But if he can play, I'll only play him as long as the game is still in doubt."
If Ward can't go, Bowden will start either Danny Kanell or Jon Stark. Both highly touted sophomores, Kanell and Stark have shared mop-up duty behind Ward. Since Stark got to play against theDemon Deacons, it likely will be Kanell's turn against Maryland.
"They're both great competitors," Ward said of his understudies. "If I can't play, they'll do well."
The decision to play Brooks is based on improving results in Cybex strength tests the 6-1, 225-pound junior has taken the past couple of weeks. Brooks said yesterday that his strength is back to "85 to 90 percent" and that he expects "limited, monitored action" on Saturday.
But part of Brooks' desire to return Saturday has to do with next week's opponent, and the magnitude of the game against the Fighting Irish. Until he was hurt, Brooks was having an All-American season, with two of his three touchdowns coming on interception returns.
"I want to get the rustiness out," said Brooks. "You don't want to feelcold against a team of Notre Dame's caliber."
Regardless of whether he plays Ward, or how much he plays Brooks, one certainty is that Bowden will use a lot of players. He used 81, including some walk-ons, against Wake Forest. He said he will use "between 70 and 75" against Maryland.
Some of Bowden's hesitancy to rest his front-line players has to do with what happened in 1989. Favored in their season opener against Southern Mississippi by anywhere from 17 to 20 points, the Seminoles lost a game that ultimately cost them the national championship.
"A lot of coaches lose games they're not supposed to," said Bowden. "I can't afford that."
Nor can Florida State afford losing Ward or Brooks, especially with Notre Dame looming.