MIAMI -- Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward spent the better part of December doing everything but playing football. He went to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremonies -- he won -- and made it back to Tallahassee, Fla., in time for graduation.
"Picked up a couple of things," said Ward.
Ward picked up what he hoped for last night in the Orange Bowl -- a victory over second-ranked Nebraska, and a probable national championship. It will be a perfect ending to what has been a nearly perfect season for the top-ranked Seminoles and their star.
Rarely has a team started as the preseason No. 1 and finished as national champion. And, since O. J. Simpson won the Heisman Trophy in 1968, only eight players who took college football's top individual prize have played for the national championship. Only one of those players, Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh in 1976, has been on the No. 1 team at the end of a season.
"I don't know why," Ward said last week. "For myself, I need help. You always need help to win, no matter if it's the Orange Bowl for the national championship or the opening game of the season. I, myself, do the best I can. I think I've done a pretty good job this year."
That kind of understatement isn't unusual coming from Ward. Since taking over as Florida State's quarterback last season, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior from Thomasville, Ga., has done most of his talking with his quick feet and deceptively strong right arm, leaving the bravado to his trash-talking teammates.
But the results have been remarkable: The Seminoles are 23-2 with Ward, the school's first black to start at quarterback. Since going to what Florida State calls its fast-break offense that Ward operates out of the shotgun, the only defeat came at Notre Dame this season.
"It sounds complicated, but it's not," said Ward, who completed 264 of 380 passes for 3,032 yards, with 27 touchdowns and only four interceptions before last night's game. "It's actually very simple. The defense decides what they want to do, then I see what that is and I execute the game plan."
As well as the opposition. So quickly have the Seminoles obliterated their opponents this season that Ward has played into the fourth quarter only three times. And the Cornhuskers know that the quarterback they faced last night is a more refined version of the one they played in last year's 27-14 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.
"He's a lot more confident, a lot more relaxed," Nebraska strong safety John Reece said last week. "It's like second nature for him now. And he was pretty good last year."
Said Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne: "The key is that you have to be aware of Charlie Ward at all times. You can't put somebody on him as a shadow, because that will leave somebody else open."
Notre Dame was the only team to fluster Ward at times, and he still managed to throw for 297 yards and three touchdowns.
"I'd say the best way to stop Charlie Ward," Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said last week, "is to get him out of the game."
In fact, Ward's recollection of last year's Orange Bowl game is that "they ran the pass rush lanes well and hit me a lot. That, and we were very young on offense and didn't know it as well as we do now. But over the year, you learn the system and mature."
Still, the biggest difference between last night's game and last year's game is what was at stake. Last year, the Seminoles had lost to Miami earlier in the season and wound up, as Ward said, "playing for second place. . . This year, it's for everything."
In a year when Ward has won seemingly every major offensive award in the country, losing last night to Nebraska would have left a decidedly sour taste in his mouth and a rather significant void in what has been an almost perfect season.
"If I played an individual sport, like tennis, the first one [the Heisman] would be nice," he said. "But I play a team sport."
And in college football, winning both the Heisman Trophy and being part of a national championship in the same season is very rare. Then again, so is Charlie Ward.