Florida switches QBs for Maryland

Blown curfew costs Grossman his job for Terps showdown

Backup Berlin is no slouch

Starting defensive end sits, too

UM quietly braces for air assault

Orange Bowl


January 02, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- The Maryland football team has won 10 games, won its conference and earned its way into its first major bowl game in 25 years.

But heading into tonight's Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium, the focus is on what fifth-ranked Florida can do, not what the sixth-ranked Terrapins have done.

Will the 9-2 Gators have gotten over their last game enough to play this one effectively? Will their speed at the skill positions blow 10-1 Maryland out of the water by the end of the first half?

And will coach Steve Spurrier's recent benching of Heisman Trophy runner-up Rex Grossman become a distraction?

Sophomore Brock Berlin will start at quarterback for the Gators in place of Grossman, one of two starters relegated to reserve roles after missing curfew Friday.

Spurrier -- who yesterday said the curfew violations were "clear breakdowns" -- also benched starting defensive end Bobby McCray. McCray, who had 12 tackles this season, probably will play, but Grossman probably won't unless Berlin struggles.

"We have a lot of confidence in Brock and he's going to get his chance," Spurrier said. Berlin came to Florida as the nation's top quarterback prospect out of high school two years ago, and narrowly lost to Grossman for the starting job this year.

Berlin has thrown for nine touchdowns against only one interception in mop-up time this season, with his pass efficiency rating of 173.8 actually higher than Grossman's nation-leading 170.8. Last month, Berlin announced he was strongly considering transferring to Miami.

"I think he's earned the right to play," said Spurrier, who denied that this was any ploy to keep Berlin in Gainesville. "He's been to every workout he's supposed to be at for two years and to every meeting he's supposed to be at for two years. If there's any kid who deserves the chance to see what he can do, it's Brock Berlin."

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said he didn't expect Spurrier's action to have much of an impact tonight.

"I don't think it affects us," Friedgen said. "The other guy is pretty good, too. ... I don't have any control over that, and I'm sure that Steve will do whatever he has to do to win the ballgame."

The late breakdown in compliance for the Gators with two of their most prominent players could be seen as a sign of the team's boredom with a bowl game several rungs lower than their preseason goal.

Florida had hoped for a spot 3,000 miles away in the Rose Bowl, playing for the national championship. A loss to Tennessee in its regular-season finale derailed those plans, forcing the team to put a happy face on a date with Maryland, which was picked seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference before winning that league.

"We have all of our minds set on Maryland and we know we've got a challenge," Florida free safety Todd Johnson said. "We're excited to be here and excited to be playing Maryland."

In contrast to Florida's perceived dismay at being here, the Maryland party has been stamped with joy. The Terrapins were last here in 1956, their last major bowl (Cotton) was in 1977, and it has been more than 11 years since the program played in any bowl.

The players have enjoyed the attention. They've enjoyed the weather, and they're determined to prove themselves and to not let any Florida dissatisfaction overshadow their enthrallment.

"We're here and they're playing us," strong safety Tony Jackson said of the Gators. "They have to deal with it and be ready to play on Jan. 2."

When focused, and perhaps when not, Florida is far better than any team Maryland has played this season. The Gators won by 24 points over a Florida State team that beat the Terrapins, 52-31, on Oct. 27.

Maryland's four turnovers hurt in that game, but the loss was most memorable for the contempt shown its defensive secondary by Seminoles quarterback Chris Rix, who consistently went deep against a group without its best performer at that point, cornerback Tony Okanlawon.

Okanlawon has been out with an undisclosed medical condition but will play, while freshman Domonique Foxworth (Western Tech) will start opposite Curome Cox.

Jackson apparently has recovered from a recent ankle injury, making the Maryland defense whole against a Florida offense that ranked second among Division I-A teams with 527.6 yards per game.

More than 400 of those yards come through the air, with wide-outs Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell becoming only the second Florida pair to record 1,000 receiving yards each in a season.

Cox defended his team against the contention that its corners couldn't hang with the Florida receivers. "Anyone who criticizes the secondary, if they look at the tape they would never see one of us getting run by," he said. "The other team may have more talent than us, but I don't think they can say they have better game speed than we do."

Nonetheless, the Terrapins are hoping they can find insurance from a decent pass rush on defense and the ability to keep the ball on offense.

While tailback Bruce Perry's last 100-yard rushing effort came on Oct. 6 against Virginia, Maryland still rushed for 200 yards or more in four of the last six games of the season.

Still, against a Florida defense that ranked 12th nationally in run defense, much of the pressure will fall on Terrapins quarterback Shaun Hill, who became increasingly effective as the season went on..

Friedgen said that if Miami loses to Nebraska tomorrow, he holds out hope that his team could be a part of the national championship dialogue.

For now, however, he's aware that his team's chances of beating Florida are seen as slight.

"We're the underdogs, but that's why we play the game," he said. "If they're the better team, they'll win. If we're better, we'll win. Football bounces a lot of ways -- hopefully it will bounce ours."

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