Facing a red alert, Wuerffel is unshaken

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TEMPE, Ariz. -- They're coming. Danny Wuerffel knows they're coming.

In big, red waves, one after another after another, for all four quarters of the Fiesta Bowl on Tuesday night at Sun Devil Stadium, Nebraska defenders are going to come after Wuerffel, Florida's record-setting quarterback.

"I'm sure," Wuerffel said yesterday, "they're going to come at me hard to try to disrupt us."

No doubt about it. What else are they going to do with college football's best offense?

"We've got to get to the guy," Nebraska tackle Christian Peter said. "Knock him down, shake him up."

Of all the strategies involved in this year's national championship game, this one stands out as the most important.

If Wuerffel can set up, pick out his receivers and throw at his own pace, the Gators will win. Nebraska allowed 250-plus passing yards in six of 11 games this year, and although some of that was due to early blowouts that forced opponents to pass, the Huskers clearly are vulnerable to the pass.

Their best and maybe only chance to slow down Florida coach Steve Spurrier's passing offense is to get to Wuerffel before Wuerffel gets to them.

"I fully expect a hard, hard charge from them," Wuerffel said.

Of course, getting to him and actually shaking him up, to the point that his play suffers, are different matters. Wuerffel is a sturdy junior who has taken hard hits throughout his college career -- Spurrier's offense leaves the quarterback more vulnerable than most -- but he has always gotten up and almost always done what was necessary to win.

"He has played great all year with people coming at him hard," Gators receiver Chris Doering said.

"I don't think they can hit any harder than I've been hit," Wuerffel said.

This year's Florida-Auburn game was particularly harsh for Wuerffel, who was sacked six times and missed eight of his first nine passes. Undaunted, he completed 19 of his last 25 and Florida won, 49-38.

That doesn't bode well at all for Nebraska's chances.

Florida State also gave him a severe pounding in the Sugar Bowl last year. The Gators lost, 23-17, but Wuerffel was brilliant, throwing for 394 yards.

"He's a tough kid, you can see that from watching films," Nebraska linebacker Jared Tomich said. "We'll just line up and do what we can do to him."

They could have difficulty rattling him if his ability to handle the Fiesta Bowl pre-game hype is any indication. He has been calm (( and confident and almost professional in manner as he waded through the inevitable stream of big-event stupid questions. ("Who is your favorite comic book superhero?")

Perhaps the Huskers' best bet would be to bring up on the field the one issue that seems to rankle him: whether his success is due more to his own talent or Spurrier's offense, which makes a superstar out of every quarterback. Florida sources say Wuerffel resents that.

But even that one hasn't seemed to bother him this week.

"I'm just glad I play at a place where they throw the ball," he said. "I have talked to a lot of other quarterbacks who wish they threw as much as we did."

The son of an Air Force minister, Wuerffel gets much of his innate calm from his faith.

"There's no question that gives him his poise and composure," said Jimmy Ray Stephens, who was Wuerffel's high school coach in Fort Walton, Fla., and is now the Gators' line coach.

His father's military career resulted in a childhood of frequent address changes. At age 9, he spent a year in Lincoln, Neb., cheering for the Cornhuskers.

"It was the year [1984] they went to the Orange Bowl and lost the national title to Miami," Wuerffel said. "I was upset, like everyone. At school the next day, the teachers got us together and told us that, you know, life would go on."

For years he maintained a place in his heart for the Cornhuskers.

"I went to my first major sporting event there and really cheered for a team for the first time," he said. "It had a strong impact on me."

Twelve years later, he will try to break the hearts of another generation of young Nebraska fans -- at the same time that the Cornhuskers are basically trying to break him in half to get their hands on the national championship trophy again.

"Listen, I know I'm going to take some licks," Wuerffel said. "But that's just football. That's what happens. You take licks, then you get up and keep playing."

Nebraska can only hope it isn't that easy for him Tuesday night.

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