Sugar was most certainly sweet in Louisville Wednesday night.
No one gave Louisville a chance.
The announcers in every pre-game special were more interested in how big Florida's blowout of the lowly Big East champs would be.
I don't think anyone quite expected what went down in New Orleans.
Except for Charlie Strong and his team.
The Louisville football team won their second BCS Bowl game with a thorough dismantling of the heavily favored Florida Gators, 33-23. But don't let that ten point spread fool you; a Florida kickoff return for a touchdown and a late scoring drive made the score look more respectable, but the truth is that Louisville outplayed Florida in virtually every aspect of the game (minus second half special teams) all night long.
The fireworks started early for Louisville - on the first offensive snap of the game. For Florida. The Cardinals would put the rush on Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, who would deliver a bad pass too wide for his intended receiver - the result was a tipped ball that landed in the anxiously waiting hands of sophomore corner Terrell Floyd. 38-yards and an extra-point later, the Gators were looking at a 7-0 deficit at the hands of the "lowly" Cardinals, and only :15 seconds off the clock.
The first big shock of the game: Florida isn't particularly adept in the passing game. Their first offensive play being a pass was undoubtedly meant to catch Louisville off guard, and it blew up on them in a big way considering the pass rush leading to a bad pass leading to a pick-six.
Much to Louisville's chagrin, Florida didn't change tactics much on their second drive. They attempted a single run, and ended up 3-and-out after another pair of passes. Florida would punt, and Louisville would then proceed to methodically move the ball down the field against the vaunted Florida defense much the way they had at the beginning of the year. 12 plays, 83 yards and 6:24 later, every sports analyst in America sat with a dropped jaw as Louisville held a 14-0 lead on Florida. The Louisville running game had been non-existent in four weeks, and even so far in this game, but the methodical Louisville offense had pushed the Florida defense all the way to the goal line, and junior running back Jeremy Wright punched it in.
Florida would have the ball back to start the second quarter, and would kick a field goal to cut Louisville's lead to eleven, 14-3. Louisville would answer back after another six minute drive, when John Wallace knocked through a 27-yard field goal to put Louisville in front 17-3.
After another 3-and-out and punt by Florida, Louisville would churn out yet another methodical drive against the Gators, this time topped off by a 15-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to sophomore receiver DeVante Paker. The extra point would give Louisville an even bigger lead, 24-3.
Florida would score on a busted formation play with just a few seconds left before halftime to make Louisville's halftime lead 24-10.
The score before halftime was painful. The Gators had gotten all the way down to Louisville's 1-yard line, and on 4th and goal, got to paydirt. For Gator fans, it was a sigh of relief, and for Louisville fans, it seemed like that potential thing that might start swinging momentum back in the other direction. There was a nervous energy amongst Cardinal nation - we'd come out and smacked the highly touted, third ranked Gators in the mouth; but they were closing the gap.
That's where having a head coach with unbelievable foresight and preparedness pays off.
Florida attempted a trick onside kick to start the second half and capitalize on their momentum from before the half, and it failed miserably. Strong had placed a hands team up front who immediately fell on the onside kick.
But things would go from bad to worse for Florida.
Instead of Louisville getting the ball so close to midfield when they were already carving up the Gators' defense, a pair of personal fouls were called against Florida, including the ejection of Florida running back and special teamer Chris Johnson, caught throwing a punch after the failed onside kick. On Louisville's first offensive play, Teddy Bridgewater would put the dagger through Florida fan's hearts - delivering a 19-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to junior receiver Damian Copeland. Florida would block the extra point, but the damage was already done, and Louisville's lead was now 30-10.
The rest of the game for Louisville would be a mix of defensive success and missed opportunities. Florida's very next possession resulted in a fumble by Driskel recovered by Louisville at the 4 yard line, but a 2-yard loss by Wright and a pair of sacks on Bridgewater would ultimately lead to a missed 43-yard field goal by Wallace. Another Florida 3-and-out would lead to another long, seven minute drive by Louisville, but a blocked field goal. The third quarter would come to a close shortly after Bridgewater was intercepted on a tipped pass - a stellar defensive effort by Florida's Dominique Easley to spin around and get a hand in the passing lane.
Driskel would throw his second pick in the end zone with Florida driving to open the fourth quarter, and Wallace would finally get a chance to right things by knocking through a 30-yard field goal to give Louisville it's largest lead of the game, 33-10. That lead would be short lived, though. Florida's Andre Debose would bring back the ensuing kickoff 100-yards for a touchdown and give Florida renewed life, 33-17. The Gators would try and fail their second onside kick attempt here.
Louisville went 3-and-out for the first time in the entire game a little over midway through the 4th quarter, and would punt the ball back to Florida. Every Cardinal fan around the nation gets on edge a bit. The Louisville lead is just 16 - or two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions.
Florida started driving.
Fortunately for Louisville, Florida just never showed the necessary urgency. They seemed content to walk up to the line, call out audibles and patterns while precious seconds ticked away.
But with just over two minutes left - an eternity to a fan on the edge of their seat waiting to win a game against a team they weren't "supposed" to beat - Florida scored. Driskel connected with Kent Taylor on a five yard touchdown, the score now 33-23. Now comes the all important conversion attempt to make it a one possession game.
Driskel lines up in the shotgun, stands around way too long looking for an open receiver, and he's sacked by junior defensive end Marcus Smith to end the Florida threat, and effectively end Florida's comeback hopes. Florida would put on the onside kick for yet a third time, fail yet a third time, and after a pair of Jeremy Wright first down runs (three total runs for 22 yards) and a kneel down, Louisville would be officially crowned Sugar Bowl Champions, 33-23.
Bridgewater was named the Sugar Bowl MVP, and for good reason. Teddy picked apart the Florida defense that was supposed to shut down Louisville. Bridgewater finished the game 20-of-32 (62.5%) for 266 yards, a pair of touchdowns, and the lone interception (which again, game off of a great defensive effort as opposed to being a poorly thrown pass). Teddy routinely found open receivers to keep drives alive, particularly in the first half. Louisville was 9-of-14 on 3rd down attempts in the game, keeping the Florida defense on the field and the speedy Florida offense off the field. The Gators didn't help themselves when they had the ball either, finishing just 3-for-10 on third down.
Despite being shut down in the first half, Jeremy Wright would finish with 84 yards on the ground against the Gators - a very nice total considering the number of zero or negative yard runs he had early.
Had the Cardinals been able to finish the rest of their drives in the 3rd and 4th quarters, the score would have been even more lopsided - at least 39-23 if Wallace's two field goals go through. But a win is a win, especially when you embarrass a team that was supposed to embarrass you.
Louisville finishes the season 11-2 overall, and will still return the vast majority of this team next season; most likely, again in the Big East (unless something happens and the league folds altogether between now and then). The schedule is yet to be made, especially with the Big East membership again in flux with Boise State already backing out and other teams west of the Mississippi River tangled up in numerous rumors to follow suit.
After Louisville's Sugar Bowl performance, Teddy Bridgewater and company are likely to get much more respect from the pollsters as 2013 begins. It is nearly impossible to try and rank teams between now and then without seeing who stays and who goes pro, which other coaches might leave or stay, and which new recruits look best, which don't pan out, and which players may get hurt; but expect Louisville to certainly be a top 25 team in next year's preseason, probably top 15. Heck, if enough SEC players declare for the NFL from Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU, Louisville might even sneak into that top ten.
But for now, enjoy that victory, because Sugar is sweet indeed!
Interesting side note #1: Louisville becomes the first team to score touchdowns within the first 15 seconds of both halves in a BCS bowl game.
Interesting side note #2: Louisville is now 2-0 all time in BCS games, having also won the 2006 Orange Bowl over Wake Forest.
Interesting side note #3: According to reports, Louisville outsold the heavily favored Gators by almost double within their ticket allotment for the Sugar Bowl. Louisville sold all 15,000 of theirs, while Florida fans only claimed only around 7,500 of theirs.
Interesting side note #4: As a 14.5 point underdog prior to the game, Louisville is the biggest (odds) upset winner in BCS history.