NEW ORLEANS - Danny Wuerffel is going down. This much we know. The question is how often and how hard.
Florida's ability to protect its Heisman Trophy quarterback from the fierce pass rush of Florida State figures to be the decisive factor in Thursday's Sugar Bowl. Given time, Wuerffel is a wonder. Under siege, he is a slab of meat.
Why else would Gators coach Steve Spurrier be going to such extreme lengths to shield him?
Spurrier has shaped the story line of college football's quasi-championship game with a pre-emptive strike at dirty play. He says the Seminoles have treated his quarterback like ''a tackling dummy,'' that they are prone to late hits, and that excessive force is encouraged by Bobby Bowden's coaching staff. This is an audacious allegation, a transparent attempt to influence officials, and a statement entirely consistent with Spurrier's scorched-earth diplomacy.
Florida State: 'Ridiculous'
If you're scoring Sugar Bowl cheap shots, the first one should be assessed against Florida.
''I really think it's ridiculous,'' said Florida State defensive end Peter Boulware. ''We've been hitting the quarterback all year and nobody ever said a thing about it. I'm not going to think about it. Our key is to get to Wuerffel and try to put him down as many times as we can.''
Boulware led the nation with 19 sacks this season, and spent the better part of Nov. 30 grinding Wuerffel into the ground. The Seminoles sacked the Gators quarterback six times in their 24-21 victory in Tallahassee, and they counted 32 hits on Mr. Heisman in their subsequent film study.
''It was,'' said Florida tailback Elijah Williams, ''the worst pounding I've ever seen Danny take.''
It was an awesome display of defense. It was also, Spurrier insists, premeditated mayhem. Florida coaches prepared a video depicting nine plays in which they thought roughing-the-passer penalties were warranted. On two of the plays, the officials did throw flags. One time, they clearly missed a late hit. The other six plays, however, contact ranged from incidental to inconclusive.
Because Wuerffel threw 48 passes in the game, two roughing penalties might be considered an acceptable ratio. When a defense pursues a quarterback as doggedly as does Florida State, some excesses are probably inevitable.
''We don't play dirty football,'' said Mickey Andrews, Florida State's defensive coordinator. ''We don't coach dirty football. We ask our kids to play hard. When you play with intensity and aggressiveness, there's only a split-second of time to make a decision. If you make the wrong decision, you get flagged. That's the way it should be.''
Wuerffel, for his part, has abstained from the controversy. One of the reasons is that he's too polite. Another is that complaining would only serve to undermine his reputation for toughness.
Wuerffel staying out of it
''I stay out of all that,'' he said Monday. ''I've said a bunch of times that growing up my dad and my coaches have always said, 'That's not your business. You concentrate on what you have to concentrate on.' ... Once you get hit, it doesn't matter whether it's before the play is over or after the play is over. You've only got so much time to get up and get ready for the next play.''
Spoken like a true stoic. A guy doesn't get good at football because he fears contact. Danny Wuerffel did not win the Heisman Trophy because he panicked under pressure.
''If you hit a quarterback a lot, normally instead of looking at their receiver they're going to be cutting their eyes at you,'' said Florida State's Boulware. ''A guy like Wuerffel - I thought after I hit him a couple of times he'd slow down. He didn't.''
Reinard Wilson, Florida State's other defensive line All-American, also remarked on Wuerffel's resilience Monday. But he later pointed out an important distinction: The November game was played outdoors, on grass. Thursday's Armageddon is inside, on AstroTurf.
''If Wuerffel gets hit as much as he did last time, I don't think he will keep getting up,'' Wilson said. ''The cement doesn't give too much.''