At West Virginia and Florida, quarterbacks share the glory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- The quarterbacks who got Florida and West Virginia to the USF&G; Sugar Bowl also brought along some heavy personal baggage.

The one recognizable name is West Virginia's Jake Kelchner, but his resume includes a false start at Notre Dame and numerous injuries.

Darren Studstill has taken advantage of Kelchner's frequent absences to rally the Mountaineers to milestone wins over the past two years, but he lives with the memory of losing the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.

Terry Dean is the starter for Florida, which set four Southeastern Conference passing records, but he was pulled after struggling in Week 2 against Kentucky. He considered transferring after taking a seat for the next four games.

He was replaced by Danny Wuerffel, probably the best freshman quarterback in the nation, but one who also struggled in the middle of the season. The two alternated the rest of the year before Wuerffel's season was ended by a knee injury against Florida State in the final regular-season game.

It all makes for an unpredictable New Year's Day encounter at the Superdome, where Florida will be a six-point favorite despite West Virginia's unbeaten record and national championship hopes.

West Virginia is here in part because Kelchner started talking big last spring. Since 1988, when he was one of the nation's top prep prospects and the Mountaineers went 11-1, neither has fulfilled its potential, and it was time to deliver.

"I don't know if anyone can understand how well it feels to be in my position," Kelchner said. "I made some mistakes, and felt like I couldn't go back home, because I had disappointed the whole town. That hurt for a long time."

Kelchner came out of Berwick (Pa.) High, a proud, coal-country power south of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which has gotten 12 of its quarterbacks scholarships since 1971. The most recent was Ron Powlus, who evidently wasn't turned off by Kelchner's troubles fTC at Notre Dame. Powlus would have been the Irish starter this season but for an injury.

Kelchner's Notre Dame stay had a similar beginning. He was hurt after leading Pennsylvania past Maryland in the Big 33 All-Star Game. He never could get past Rick Mirer, and more injuries were compounded by a scrape with the law (he was arrested for driving while intoxicated) and disinterest in studies. Before his sophomore year, he was academically dismissed.

"It was so devastating when they said I would have to leave; I thought I'd never play again," said Kelchner, who was in Lou Holtz's office when the Notre Dame coach placed a call to West Virginia's Don Nehlen. "Coach Nehlen told me, 'I'm not going to give you a second chance; you've got one chance to straighten up.' I had to grow up."

Kelchner was idle for three seasons before he finally gained his eligibility in 1992. An elbow injury that required surgery kept him out of two games, and Studstill had better statistics for the season, as the two split time directing the Mountaineers' ground-oriented attack.

Kelchner won the top spot last spring, and this season he came within three attempts of leading the nation in passing efficiency. He looked especially sharp against Maryland, completing 15 of 19 for 270 yards and two touchdowns, but that was before the Terps were recognized as one of the worst defenses in the nation and before Kelchner had problems with a hamstring and again with the elbow.

Studstill replaced the hobbled Kelchner against another defensive weakling, Temple, but he also had to bail out the Mountaineers in the regular-season finale against Boston College. Down 14-3 in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers followed Studstill to two late touchdowns and, in effect, from the Carquest Bowl to the Sugar Bowl. It wasn't a first for Studstill: In 1992, he replaced Kelchner and led West Virginia out of a 19-point hole against Maryland, the biggest comeback in school history.

Florida most likely will see Stud still on West Virginia's fourth possession, but the Mountaineers say they have no quarterback controversy.

"It's a long season, and injuries happen," offensive coordinator Mike Jacobs said. "You look at the NFL, where quarterbacks go down every Sunday, and the college game is getting to be the same way. If you don't have a capable backup, you're in trouble."

There's also been a revolving door this season at Florida, where one gets the impression that a Steve Spurrier-coached team could throw for 3,000 yards alternating Beavis and Butt-head. Dean and Wuerffel are the antithesis of uninspired youth, however, and both have huge numbers despite dealing with Spurrier's quick hook.

Wuerffel, an honors student and son of an Air Force chaplain, is a redshirt freshman who threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns in his fourth collegiate start, an Oct. 16 loss at Auburn. He struggled the next week against Georgia, however, and alternated starts the rest of the season with Dean, who won the position by default when Wuerffel left the Florida State game in the first half with a knee injury.

On Tuesday, Wuerffel threw for the first time since the Florida State loss, but he isn't expected to play.

Dean is a Rhodes Scholar candidate with a 3.92 grade-point average. His ego is of similar proportion -- his vanity license plates read TDDEAN -- but he patiently waited his turn the past two seasons while Shane Matthews moved atop the Gators' career passing lists.

In August, Dean talked of his ability to lead Florida to a national title, but Wuerffel had to rescue the Gators in their second game, at Kentucky, and Dean didn't even play in Week 3, against Tennessee. Suddenly, his confidence wasn't so supreme.

"When I got benched, it looked like I was never going to play again," Dean said. "I thought about leaving, but I knew I couldn't make any decisions until the end of the year. Besides, I looked at all I had going for me here. Even when I was down, I came to realize the best place for me is Florida."

Dean got two starts in November and another in the SEC title-game victory over Alabama, in which he persevered through poor conditions to complete 20 of 37 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Returning to Gainesville that night for a celebration, his car was vandalized, but even then he saw his luck turning.

"My tires were slashed and someone scratched a key the length of the side, but I don't think I could've had a luckier day," Dean said. "I was able to prove myself as a player again, and the car turned into a godsend. I had to change the tire, and in the well I found an $800 gold chain I thought I had lost back in high school. I knew things were turning for me then."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°