NEW ORLEANS — Louisville entered the Sugar Bowl as the 14-point underdog to Florida, the No. 3 team in all of college football.
By the end of Wednesday’s game, it was obvious Las Vegas as way off.
The 21st-ranked Cardinals left the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a resounding 33-23 win, pounding a Florida team that had physically punished most of its opponents this season.
“I think they kind of thought we were going to come in and lay down and give them the game,” Louisville cornerback Terell Floyd said. “But coach (Charlie) Strong always preaches that we’re better than any team in the nation if we come out and play hard. Coach Strong believed in us and our coaching staff believed in us and we came in and believed in ourselves and got a win.”
Against Florida (11-2), Louisville proved that, for at least one night, it was the best team.
Louisville (11-2) gathered 336 yards on a Florida defense that averaged allowing only 282.6 yards per game. The Gators hadn’t allowed more than 26 points all season.
Everything Florida tried, including an onside kick, failed.
“We got outcoached and outplayed,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “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.”
Sugar Bowl Most Valuable Player Teddy Bridgewater threw for 266 yards and two touchdowns for Louisville, and withstood shot after shot in guiding the Cardinals’ offense to nearly 11 more minutes in time of possession than Florida.
But the biggest stat of the game was third downs; Louisville converted and Florida didn’t. Behind Bridgewater, the Cardinals kept the chains moving on 9 of 14 third downs. Louisville’s defense, meanwhile, held Florida to just 3 of 10 on the down.
“I looked at what did and didn’t work for quarterbacks during the regular season,” Bridgewater said. “They faced guys forcing throws and things like that, trying to force plays, trying to play with an S on their chest. And coach tells me – no capes on your back. No S on your chest. Just take what the defense gives you.
“That’s what I took.”
Louisville was gifted a touchdown on the first play of the game. Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel tried a quick pass to his left that Louisville’s Terell Floyd picked off, returning it 38 yards for a game-opening touchdown.
The Cardinal struck again on their first offensive series after forcing a Florida punt. Bridgewater went 4 of 5 for 66 yards on the drive, Louisville converted three third downs and running back Jeremy Wright punched in a 1-yard touchdown for a 14-0 Cardinals lead less than 10 minutes into the game.
Florida finally answered seconds into the second quarter with a 33-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal. The deficit could have been cut more if not for two penalties inside the Louisville 10-yard line that put the Gators in long-yardage situations.
Louisville’s lead was pushed back to two touchdowns at 17-3 on John Wallace’s 27-yard field goal. The kick was forced when the Cardinals failed to convert their first third down of the night with 8:43 to go in the first half.
Florida gambled on a fourth-and-goal play just before halftime. With most of the line set up wide to the left, Florida’s Trey Burton handed off to Matt Jones for a 1-yard score, cutting Louisville’s lead to 24-10 at the break.
Florida’s momentum was short-lived.
The Gators tried an onside kick to open the game and Louisville recovered. Two 15-yard personal foul penalties put the Cardinals at the Florida 19 and one play later, Bridgewater hit Damian Copeland for a 19-yard touchdown. The extra point was blocked, but Louisville led 30-10 just eight seconds into the second half.
“We wanted to steal a possession at the start of the second half,” Muschamp said. “We had struggled defensively in the first half and felt like you had to try to gain some momentum in the game.”
Two missed Louisville field goals kept Florida in the game and, as the fourth quarter began, it appeared the Gators were marching towards changing the tune of the game.
But a Driskel pass intended for Quinton Dunbar deflected off the receiver’s hands and into the hands of Louisville’s Andrew Johnson.
Louisville put the game away with a 30-yard Wallace field goal, giving the Cardinals a 33-10 lead with just 7:54 to play.
Florida came back with a 100-yard kickoff return to cut Louisville’s lead to 33-17 and then, with 2:13 to go, Driskel hit Kent Taylor for a 5-yard touchdown.
But it was too little, too late and Louisville left New Orleans with its biggest win in the Strong era.
“I can’t speak for the whole Big East but I can speak for Louisville and I think this means a lot for us,” Floyd said. “We showed the world we can play with the best .”