Florida vs. Louisville, Sugar Bowl preview: Teddy Bridgewater takes on the world

The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE

Can one amazing young quarterback overcome one of the best defenses in the country?

It's been a pretty good few weeks for Louisville athletics, hasn't it? The Cardinals won the Big East football crown with a road victory over Rutgers, they scored an ACC bid over UConn and Cincinnati, they kept their football coach despite serious overtures from Tennessee, and they continue to watch said coach reel in big-time recruits. (And, of course, their basketball team looks great.)

In other words, Louisville has enough momentum at the moment to survive a 23-6 loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals are still young (29 freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep) and still a work in progress, and they are probably in over their heads against a Florida squad that has sacrificed any and all aesthetics in favor of brutality and, eventually, victory.

The Gators struggle to pass the eyeball test, struggle to pull away from opponents … and they have won almost every game they have played, against a tough schedule. That the Gators almost lost to UL-Lafayette alone proves that Louisville has a chance in this game. That the Gators didn't lose, and that they also won at Texas A&M and Florida State (while beating LSU and destroying South Carolina at home), shows why they are heavy favorites. Florida is currently giving 13 points to Louisville in Vegas, more than even Florida State is giving to Northern Illinois (12.5). This is a superb team, dominant enough on defense, special teams and field position to beat you even if you slow down its offense, and Louisville probably doesn't have the firepower to take out the Gators.

But they do have Teddy Bridgewater. And that's something.


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Teddy Bridgewater is getting some rest.

Louisville's sophomore quarterback is a damn warrior, or at least the football version of such a thing. With a broken wrist limiting him to only shotgun snaps, and with a sprained ankle forcing him to limp up and down the field between plays, the sophomore used a combination of will and incredible downfield accuracy to lead Louisville to a win over Rutgers on November 29. It seemed like we were seconds from a Byron Leftwich Situation through most of the Rutgers game, but Bridgewater kept firing pellets downfield in the face of a blitz-heavy Rutgers defense. Bridgewater completed seven of 13 passes for 157 yards on throws at least 10 yards downfield, and 10 came against a blitz. (He was also sacked three times overall; his ankle removed from the equation what is typically pretty good mobility.) Bridgewater is ridiculously tough and accurate, and the bowl break is allowing him to actually heal a bit.

For all intents and purposes, Louisville's chances lie in Bridgewater's right arm. The Cardinals are a pass-heavy squad in general (they rank 85th in run rate on standard downs, 92nd on passing downs), and they are pretty good at it, ranking 26th in Passing S&P+. Five different targets will see at least three passes in a given game: receivers DeVante Parker (712 yards, 12.1 per target, 64 percent catch rate), Damian Copeland (597, 9.6, 77 percent), Andrell Smith (481, 10.7, 67 percent) and Eli Rogers (443, 7.5, 71 percent), and running back Jeremy Wright (306, 7.1, 88 percent). Parker is one of the best No. 1 targets in college football, but the unit's strength is in its depth. If your secondary has a weakness, Bridgewater will find it, and he will find a receiver to exploit it.

One problem with this plan: Florida's secondary really doesn't have a weakness. The Gator defense is first in the country in Passing S&P, making up for an average pass rush (60th in Adj. Sack Rate) with perhaps the best set of defensive backs in college football. Safety Matt Elam (four interceptions, five passes broken up, 10 tackles for loss) is the star, but corners Louchiez Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson (combined: five interceptions, 25 passes broken up) are athletic and aggressive. Georgia's Aaron Murray, possessor of one of college football's best arms, was just 2-for-11 with two picks on passes at least 10 yards downfield.

Louisville has had an athleticism advantage out wide in almost every game it has played this year; it won't in New Orleans.

Knowing its secondary can handle a heavy load, Florida is not forced to blitz too often. The Gators did so on just 10 of 35 pass attempts versus Florida State; they still got pressure on FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel a decent amount with just a four-man rush, but they forced Manuel to extend plays to find potentially open receivers, and he wasn't able to do it frequently. Manuel completed just 18 of 33 passes for 182 yards and two sacks (4.6 yards per pass attempt). Since Louisville is not particularly set on running the ball (or very good at it), Bridgewater is going to have to beat the Florida secondary to win. He has passed quite a few tests in his first two seasons at UL; this is probably the biggest.

Shutdown Fullback's confused Louisville fan previews the Sugar Bowl.

Can Louisville even pretend to stop the run?

Of course, Bridgewater will only have a chance for heroics if his defense can stop Florida's offense. The Gators are far from explosive, but they have proven that they will run on you for as long as you will let them. And let's just say that Louisville has been quite hospitable in 2012.

The Cardinals rank 96th in Rushing S&P+ and 104th in Adj. Line Yards. There is almost no disruptive force up front: Louisville's 53 tackles for loss rank 103rd in the country, ahead of only four BCS conference teams. No Cardinal has logged more than 6.5 tackles for loss (sophomore end Lorenzo Mauldin has 6.5, junior end Marcus Smith has 6.0, and strongside linebacker George Durant has 4.5), and with five true freshmen and one senior (backup linebacker Daniel Brown, who has played in just four games) in the two-deep on the front seven, the experience just isn't where it needs to be.

In the Big East, the Cardinals have gotten by against quite a few pass-happy opponents with iffy run games. Florida, however, is the polar opposite. The Gators aren't going to throw the ball unless you make them (they rank ninth in the country in run rate on standard downs, 20th on passing downs), and they will eventually wear you down. They average 3.9 yards per carry over 19.8 first-half carries, but they average 5.2 per carry over 22.6 second-half carries. It is possible to take Florida out of its comfort zone -- running back Mike Gillislee averaged just 3.3 yards per carry versus Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri and UL-Lafayette and averaged better than 5.0 per carry in a game just twice over the final nine games of the season -- but you absolutely must do so.

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Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Hem Jeff Driskel in.

Jeff Driskel is a confounding quarterback. The Florida signal caller was downright Heisman-like at times this season, willing Florida to victory with his legs against Vanderbilt (177 rushing yards, three touchdowns) and with both arms and legs against Tennessee (219 passing yards and two scores, plus 81 rushing yards and multiple extended plays). But for much of the season, Driskel was either iffy (to put it kindly) or asked not to do much of anything.

For the season, Driskel's numbers were fine, if quite conservative. He completed 65 percent of his passes with an 11-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio, but he averaged just 10.5 yards per completion and took a lot of sacks. Like, a lot of sacks. He was brought down 33 times in 249 pass attempts (a 13-percent sack rate, about three times higher than it should be; and removing the Texas A&M, in which he was sacked eight times, his sack rate was still 11 percent). Usually you know what you're getting with a quarterback. Maybe he is a low-ceiling game manager. Maybe he is the high-risk, high-reward sort. Driskel has been, at different times, each. Or both.

While we never quite know what we're going to get from him, we do know one thing: Driskel is better out of the pocket than in it.

It is almost as if Driskel's athletic instincts have far surpassed his quarterback instincts. If he escapes the pocket (via the design of the play or improvisation), he often thrives. In rollouts and bootlegs (planned and unplanned) against Florida State, Driskel completed seven of nine passes for 90 yards, 10.0 per attempt. In similar passes against Georgia, he was 3-for-4 for 33 yards. These aren't incredible numbers, but they are certainly solid in small sample sizes. The problem is that in all other situations, Driskel was 19-for-36 for 209 yards and two picks and was sacked nine times. Average yards per pass attempt: 2.8. Driskel is not yet a natural pocket passer, and he might never be one. But outside of the pocket, he is still pretty dangerous.

Against Rutgers, Louisville played rather passive, reactive defense. The Cardinals blitzed just 24 percent of the time and rushed fewer than four defenders on 38 percent of the Scarlet Knights' pass attempts. That could very well be the strategy again against Florida, and it would make some sense. Blitzing Driskel is dangerous if you allow him to escape the pocket -- it almost makes more sense to hem him in and force him to throw from the confines of the pocket.

Of course, a passive approach may look good on paper, but it still has to work. Twice against Rutgers, Louisville missed tackles and allowed small to moderate gains to become long touchdowns. A 22-yard pass from Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova to Brandon Coleman became an 85-yard score, and a three-yard pass to Mark Harrison became a 68-yard touchdown. Rutgers gained 143 of its 338 total yards on two plays, and while Louisville's offense was eventually good enough to overcome that, the Cardinals won't have that much margin for error against the Gators. The only thing more difficult than scoring on Florida is scoring on Florida when you are behind and have to score.

This game will turn on...

...average first-down yardage. Louisville simply must win this battle if it wants to have a shot. If the Cardinals are facing a ton of second-and-9 situations, Teddy Bridgewater is going to be running for his life (or throwing passes into windows too tight for even Teddy Bridgewater) a lot. And if Florida is consistently facing second-and-4 after healthy runs by Mike Gillislee, the Gators will eventually both score too many points and/or flip the field too many times.

Bottom line:

It takes a full 60 minutes to beat Florida, no matter how iffy the Gators look at times. Florida scored the final 13 points against Bowling Green and Texas A&M, the final 14 points against LSU, Missouri and UL-Lafayette, and the final 24 points against Tennessee, and the Gators exploded for 24 fourth-quarter points against Florida State.

If Louisville can slow down the run, force punts, avoid turnovers and avoid a tilted field in the field position battle, the Cardinals will give themselves a chance, just like so many of the above teams did. But their poor defense and lack of more than a decent run game will make those "ifs" longshots at best.

Bridgewater is fantastic, and Louisville is on a lovely upward trajectory, but this team probably isn't ready to become a BCS bowl champion just yet. Florida, on the other hand, very much is.

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