COLLEGE PARK -- The Maryland Terrapins are undefeated, ranked in the Top 25 and getting ready for a huge game against Duke this weekend, but a critical issue hangs over them: What happens at quarterback when Scott Milanovich returns next week from his suspension for gambling?
It was an easy call for coach Mark Duffner until the Terps went 3-0; Milanovich is the superior talent, more experienced, the kind of quarterback a coach would be foolish not to use. But Duffner's call is suddenly and pleasantly muddled now that sophomore fill-in Brian Cummings has led the surprising Terps to their first national ranking in nine years.
The decision is the toughest Duffner has faced in four seasons here, because something finally is at stake (the Carquest Bowl!) and a quarterback brouhaha could louse it up. So, does he stand on ceremony and give the job back to the senior, Milanovich? Or does he go with the surprisingly hot, young hand?
Duffner was noncommittal yesterday. "We'll just see," he said. "It's a nice situation."
A lot could depend on what happens against Duke, obviously. If the Terps are 4-0, Cummings has to start against Georgia Tech next week. That's just common sense, a lesson from the Coaching 101 textbook. You can't bench an undefeated starter, regardless of what Milanovich was promised in return for skipping the NFL's supplemental draft and coming back for a truncated senior season.
But in the long run, through the inevitable ups and downs of the rest of the season, this is what Duffner should do: Use them both.
Let one play the first and third quarters, the other the second and fourth quarters. Or let the starter play two series, bring the other off the bench for two, bring the starter back, use the sub again, Eenie and Meenie, Meinie and Moe, all the way through the game. Or just give them each a quarter in the first half and let the hot hand play the second half.
It sounds like a ridiculous idea, institutionalizing a quarterback controversy like that. Many are the teams that have all but imploded when the coach couldn't choose between two quarterbacks.
This time, it makes sense.
Milanovich and Cummings have different talents that cause the Terps to run different plays and take on completely different offensive looks. Alternating the two quarterbacks -- and styles -- would put tremendous pressure on opponents' defenses, basically forcing them to do twice the work.
It would be like facing a pitcher with two excellent but different pitches.
"It would be very, very difficult for a defense to prepare for, no question about that," Duffner said yesterday. "I remember when Florida State had Wally Woodham and Jimmy Jordan in the late '70s and went with whichever one was going good. It was no fun at all to play them."
Nor would the Terps be fun now with two such different quarterbacks in the mix. Milanovich is a classic drop-back passer, a conventional pro-style quarterback with a record-setting arm and limited mobility. Cummings also is a capable passer, but he is Milanovich's polar opposite in many ways, deft and gritty and adept at running the misdirection plays lTC on which the Terps have relied this season.
Milanovich probably can't even run those plays, but it would be silly to waste his arm and experience.
Just as it would be silly to waste Cummings, a tough New Yorker who is one of those emotional, popular leaders with whom teammates love to play.
Probably the toughest part of selling such an arrangement would be getting the players and alumni to buy into the concept. Players like to know what is happening and what to prepare for. Alumni tend not to like anything weird.
But such a selling job is a task suited to the relentlessly positive Duffner. And it's not as though the concept is completely weird: Southern Cal coach John Robinson is using two quarterbacks this year, letting Brad Otton and Kyle Wachholtz alternate quarters. And the Trojans are in the Top 10.
Besides, it's not as though using both would undermine anything special the Terps' offense has going. Despite their fine start, the Terps are ranked 95th out of 108 Division I teams in passing offense and total offense. They're 3-0 mostly because they're ranked first in turnover ratio.
In any case, from the way Cummings was talking yesterday, it sounds as if there won't be a controversy in the Terps' locker room regardless of what Duffner does.
"I figure that Scott is going to start the Georgia Tech game," Cummings said. "I said it over the summer, and it still holds true now. I don't know. I don't want to talk for Coach. It's his decision. Put it this way: Whatever decision he makes, I won't be surprised."
The Terps should win their share of games no matter who plays quarterback. Their schedule isn't that difficult. They have genuine talent in many places. They're tough.
Using both of their quarterbacks would make them that much tougher.