The least interesting of the BCS bowls at first glance, the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans pitted the third-ranked Seminoles of Florida State against the Big East champion Louisville Cardinals. Although the teams compiled similar records in the regular season, Florida entered as a heavy favorite because of its far more challenging schedule in the SEC. The key matchup here featured Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater against the vaunted Florida defense, among the best in the nation in pass coverage. In an upset that recalled Utah over Alabama or Boise State over Oklahoma, the Big East squad became the second team in red and white to win a BCS bowl this year by dominating the Seminoles literally from the first play to the last.
On the first play of the game, a Jeff Driskel pass tipped off the hands of the Florida receiver and into the hands of defensive back Terell Floyd for a pick-six that gave Louisville an immediate lead. When Florida went three-and-out on its next possession, momentum lay firmly with the Cardinals. Aided by a third-down penalty, they drove inside Florida territory on a long completion over the middle. Louisville continued to convert third downs on the drive against the vaunted Gators defense, the terror of the SEC East during the regular season. Finding an early rhythm on short and long passes, Bridgewater consistently found receivers who had space to run and tossed off an apparent touchdown pass on a catch-and-run play that looked alarmingly easy to Florida fans. Called back on review, the completion nevertheless set up Louisville with a first down inside the 1 that they converted uneventfully. When Florida marched down the field with a series of first downs, though, they finally threatened to assert themselves in a Sugar Bowl that had looked about to slip away from them.
Louisville 14, Florida 0
Stiffening inside their own red zone, the Cardinals defense held the Gators to a field goal that carved a minimal hole into their lead. The speed of their receivers then helped propel the offense into yet another and-goal situation amidst a surprising number of missed tackles from the normally capable Florida defense. But Bridgewater misfired on consecutive passes into the end zone, setting up a short field goal of their own but wasting a chance to dig a deep hole for the nation’s #3 team. Consecutive punts followed as the Louisville defense continued to stifle Florida while creating strong field position for their own offense. Too often focused on Bridgewater, the Gators continued to leave room for him to throw downfield and open space for the receivers to add yards after the catch. Despite the string of negative plays into which the Florida defense forced them on this possession, Louisville managed to convert several clear passing downs through the opposing secondary. On the best play of the half, Bridgewater hurled a long touchdown pass into the back of the end zone that his receiver caught over his shoulder while falling sideways and yet miraculously staying within bounds. Since Louisville would receive the second-half kick, Florida desperately needed a score to finish the half. Behind their most versatile play-calling so far, they increased their pace on offense and kept the Cardinals defense on their heels. Although the drive stalled within a few yards of the end zone, the Gators converted a critical fourth-down for their first touchdown of the game.
Without that score, the game probably would have lacked much interest in the second half. Even with it, though, Florida entered the admission needing to make adjustments on defense to contain Bridgewater more effectively and offer their offense a chance to rally.
Louisville 24, Florida 10
A smart idea in theory, an onside kick attempt failed for Florida to start the second half and gave Louisville the ball inside the red zone after a double personal foul. The Cardinals scored on the first play of the second half just as they had on the first play of the first half, this time a 19-yard pass from Bridgewater on which the receiver easily outran the secondary. Early in the next possession, the Gators continued to self-destruct on a fumble deep in their territory that the defense recovered inside the 5. Fortunately for them, the defense regrouped to sack Bridgewater on both second and third down, preventing the turnover from resulting in points after a missed field-goal attempt. Another near-turnover followed when a Louisville defender dropped an interception as Florida’s listless offense showed no sign of climbing back into the game. Even the Cardinals running game began to punch holes in the demoralized defense, placed under too much pressure by an offense that could not stay on the field for long.
Moving the ball almost at will, Louisville showed far more intensity and desire than the #3 team in the nation. Through the first three quarters, the underdogs had not needed to deploy their punter as they converted the vast majority of their third downs. Another missed field goal did not look likely to derail them as they ended the third quarter in firm control of the scoreboard, despite a tipped-ball interception that represented Louisville’s first turnover.
Louisville 30, Florida 10
Virtually unable to turn any positive momentum into something meaningful, Florida threw away their latest opportunity with a throw into the end zone that produced an easy interception. Bridgewater and his teammates continued to make third-down conversions look routine against a supposedly fearsome SEC defense. On the kickoff after a field goal, successful this time, Florida finally profited from its strengths on special teams with a return out of their own end zone for a touchdown, but it was too little too late. Another failed onside kick gave Louisville the ball well inside Florida territory, from where they felt content to drain more time off the clock before pinning the SEC squad near their own end zone with a well-placed punt. Florida marched the length of the field for a touchdown with the type of offensive resilience that would have served them well earlier in the game, but a sack on a two-point conversion left them two scores behind with barely two minutes to play, not a situation from which they could complete a miraculous comeback. The Gators failed on an onside kick for the third time in the Sugar Bowl before Louisville ran out the remaining time.
Final score: Louisville 33, Florida 23
A conference that prides itself on its status as the best in the country, the SEC continued to fall short of those expectations this bowl season. Two days after LSU had fallen to ACC opponent Clemson, Florida State became the second top-ten team from the conference toppled by a lower-ranked opponent before a national audience. As their transition to the ACC looms, Louisville secured some pride for the much-maligned, disintegrating Big East with a BCS bowl title that should garner them a strong preseason ranking in 2013. For college football fans, moreover, the Sugar Bowl proved that one can take no outcome for granted, even in games that seem like foregone conclusions at the outset.