CRAWFORD | SUGAR RUSH: Cards show up, shock Florida - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | SUGAR RUSH: Cards show up, shock Florida

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NEW ORLEANS (WDRB) -- The narrative already has begun after the University of Louisville's 33-23 victory over Florida in the AllState Sugar Bowl Wednesday night.

Florida didn't prepare. The Gators were bored. They weren't interested. Florida didn't show up.

Let's get the story straight. Florida showed up. And Florida got beat. U of L scored more points in one half of football (plus eight seconds) than any team has scored on the Gators all season.

U of L coach Charlie Strong quickly made this point -- it wasn't that Florida didn't show up, it's that U of L finally did.

"I look at this performance tonight and wonder why we didn't do this the whole season," Strong said. ". . . We were not a consistent team this season. We struggled, had to come from behind seven games. But if we played hard the way we played tonight for four quarters, we'd probably be looking -- who knows? I don't want to say where we would be."

Florida coach Will Muschamp put it this way: "We got outcoached and outplayed. That's what I told the football team. That's the bottom line. You go out and you get beat, you get beat. And that's what happened."

As he stood on the field, by himself momentarily, trying to take it all in, U of L athletic director Tom Jurich said, "This was domination. Charlie Strong and that coaching staff, that was a job for the books."

With a minute to play, U of L president James Ramsey pointed from the sideline up to the crowd. He turned back, and I asked him what the victory meant.

"I can't even think of what this means," he said. "It just feels so good."

As the seconds ticked off the clock, Randy Whitt watched from the sidelines. He worked with Howard Schnellenberger when U of L struck its first national blow in football -- a victory over Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.

"That was big," Whitt said. "But that Alabama team, I don't even know if they were ranked. This is the No. 3 team in the country."

Translation: Biggest. Win. Ever.

Florida didn't show up? Before the game, judging from the predictions of most analysts (including this one), Florida barely needed to. The Gators were a 14.5-point favorite at kickoff, making U of L's victory the biggest upset of the BCS era. Strong said the pregame predictions of doom fueled his players.

"The Titanic sunk," he said. "Nobody gave that a chance. Our team was, what, a 15-point underdog? That was not going to happen."

More than big picture, this win was about the small picture. There were two plays that were emblematic of the entire game.

After U of L's Terrell Floyd intercepted Florida's first pass -- on the game's first play from scrimmage -- and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown, and after the U of L defense then held Florida to a 3-and-out, Teddy Bridgewater got his first chance to throw of the game, got flushed, rolled to his right, threw, then was blown up by Jon Bostic. Bridgewater lay motionless on the field for a few seconds, as his helmet rolled about 10 yards out of the side of the end zone.

"It was a wake-up call," Bridgewater said of the hit. "Whenever you take a shot like that, it wakes you up, lets you know they're here. And Bostic, he's a great player. He's a great athlete and I take my hat off to that guy for delivering the blow."

Bridgewater got up and did not walk back to the huddle, but walked up the U of L sideline, and you wondered if he knew where he was.

Bridgewater did know where he was. And he knew what time it was. He may have lost his hat, but he didn't lose his head. After a penalty, a run and a sack, he found his old Miami Northwestern High teammate Eli Rogers for a 25-yarder, and the Cards were moving. Bridgewater, after that hit, responded with a 12-play, 83-yard drive that ate up 6:30 on the clock.

Florida gave up just over 12 points per game all season. Less than nine minutes in, U of L was up 14-0.

The play typified what Bridgewater has done all season, what he did to get the Cardinals to the Sugar Bowl with his injured effort against Rutgers. And it served notice that U of L, which did nothing fancy on the drive but utilized the talents of Bridgewater and his receivers, could move the ball on Florida.

The second play that typified the game came on third down and 1 at the Florida 26. There were 10 minutes left in the third quarter, and U of L already led 30-10. The Cards used a quarterback sneak against the No. 5 defense in the nation, and blasted a hole in the middle of its line. Bridgewater just fell forward for two yards, and the Cards kept moving.

In the middle of it, senior center Mario Benavides was pounding the turf in enthusiasm.

"Yeah, I did that because I beat the crap out of the nose (guard) in front of me and I was pumped," Benavides said. "I knew a couple of those guys had declared early for the draft, and that they're great players. For me, this could be the last time I ever play football, or for sure in a college uniform. And I just got down in a four-point stance and gave it all I had, and that was a show of excitement and I blew him off the ball. I'm so tired of that stupid conversation about that fourth-and-1 against South Florida three years ago. And I just raised up and threw the dude about four yards back and Teddy just fell forward very easily."

When you analyze how this happened, start with the team that was more physical. Florida had the defense that had shut down some of the top teams in the nation. But it was U of L's defense that made the game's first big play, and delivered big hits consistently. The Cardinals intercepted Florida QB Jeff Driskell twice. Mike Gillislee, Florida's star running back who ran for 140 yards against Orange Bowl champion Florida State, ran for just 48 yards on 9 carries against U of L.

A U of L defense that had experienced problems getting off the field on third down held the Gators to 3-of-10 on third down.

You can roll through the list. Andrell Smith caught four passes for 55 yards and recovered Florida's onside kick to open the second half. Eli Rogers caught four passes for 62 yards. DeVante Parker and Damian Copeland with TD catches. Jeremy Wright rushing for 84 yards. Preston Brown had a game-high 13 tackles. The Cardinals broke up seven passes. Andrew Johnson made a huge end-zone interception.

And then there was Teddy. Bridgewater wrote himself onto the Heisman Trophy short list with 20 of 32 passing for 266 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked five times, but more often found a way to make big plays, including completing eight of his first 10 third-down passes.

It was no mistake. The game plan from Strong and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was to put the game into Bridgewater's hands, to trust him to make the right checks, calls and instinctive decisions. Most importantly, they just wanted him to make plays.

"He's one of the best players in the country," Strong said. "He was probably -- no, not probably -- he was the best player on the field tonight."

Bridgewater didn't just get out there and sling it around. He studied for his biggest college football test.

"I looked at what did and didn't work for quarterbacks against them in the regular season," Bridgewater said, the game MVP trophy sitting in his locker. "They faced guys forcing throws and things like that, trying to force plays, trying to play with an 'S' on their chest. Coach Wats always tells me, 'No capes on your back. No 'S' on your chest. Just take what the defense gives you.' That's what I took. Film study played a vital role."

Florida made a bit late move for a comeback, but never got close enough to make a serious bid. After the game, with red and white confetti falling and a U of L crowd estimated at better than 30,000 reveling in it, running backs coach Kenny Carter said, "Our goal all month was to prove that we belong at this level."

Cardinal fans flooded Bourbon Street and outnumbered their Florida counterparts. Jurich said the Sugar Bowl president came up to him and thanked him, saying, "Without red, we would have been dead."

Strong went out of his way to thank fans, even as he's rattled their cages in the past couple of months.

"In order to change the culture of the program our fans are going to have to change it, and tonight they took that step, like this team did," he said. "They made this a home game for us."

And then there's the coach. Strong preached from before the season, when his team was picked to win the Big East and reach a BCS Bowl, that it needed to view itself as a top-level team -- and play like it.

"We knew we had the stage tonight," Strong said. "A national audience and the No. 3 team. . . . And we're just scratching the surface. We can take it to another level."

After finishing his postgame remarks, Strong walked down the steps of the podium and greeted many with handshakes. As the crowd dissipated he found one national writer he's known for some time and said, "What about that? Whoa, we kicked their ass."

Said Benavides, "These coaches never showed a second of doubt. The great thing now is that the guys coming back don't have to keep listening to him talk about how good Florida is."

Now, U of L gets to think about how good it can be.

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