Louisville punched first, and the Gators had no Plan B. Let's look back at the Cardinals' incredible Sugar Bowl performance.
64. Louisville's third-down conversion rate. The Cardinals were 9-for-14 on third downs, Florida 3-for-10 (and 1-for-8 before the Gators' final drive). And here's the deal: a lot of these were on third-and-long situations. In my Sugar Bowl preview, I said the game would hinge on first-down yardage because, even though I thought the world of Teddy Bridgewater, nobody in the country could consistently convert third-and-longs against the Florida defense. But then Bridgewater went out and did it.
On Louisville's first six third-down attempts of the night, Bridgewater completed four of five passes for 62 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 12 yards. Average yards to go on these six attempts: 9.3. Average gain: 12.3. Absurd. Bridgewater might be even better than we thought.
(Of course, at some point he has to learn how to take fewer hits so he's actually reasonably healthy for a full season -- he still got sacked five times in 37 attempts; but we'll worry about that at a later date.)
Performances like this are why we overreact to bowl performances. As with West Virginia last season, for the next nine months we will think of this incredible Louisville showing, in which it clearly played like a Top 10 team, and we will forget that the team that had Florida down 33-10 midway through the fourth quarter also lost to UConn, got whipped by Syracuse, and beat South Florida, Southern Miss and Florida International (combined record: 6-30) by a combined 13 points. History says full-season performance is more indicative of future performance than a bowl game. Tell that to your eyeballs.
54. Minutes before Louisville's first punt. For the game, Louisville did only average 4.9 yards per play and gain 336 yards overall. But between early explosiveness and a ridiculous field position advantage, Louisville's stalled drives led to field goal attempts, not punts.
46.0. Louisville's average starting field position. Florida mastered the art of winning ugly in 2012, overcoming an often shaky offense by taking your head off on defense, flipping the field with their punting game, and eventually getting you to cave in and racking up better and better rushing yardage in the second half. Florida's early deficit (it was 7-0 after one play and 14-0 after eight minutes) negated Florida's ability to pound away with the run, and the combination of turnovers and three onside kicks (two expected, one a debacle) gave Louisville ridiculously good field position most of the night. The Cardinals started just one drive inside their 20-yard line, they started four in Florida field position, and they started two inside Florida's 20.
They created the kind of easy scoring opportunities that Florida feasted on all season, in other words.
27. Years spent by Charlie Strong as an assistant coach. Just a reminder of the absurdity of coaching changes. Western Michigan just hired a 32-year-old (P.J. Fleck) as its head coach. Charlie Strong's career was almost that old when he got a shot at a head coaching job. Now he's the most wanted head coach in the country (and Louisville's getting ready to pay him like it).
14. Points scored by Louisville in the combined first 30 seconds of both halves. The best way to beat a team so reliant on defense and field position and so typically conservative on offense: Build an early lead. Strike quickly. Force the team to play from behind.
The Sugar Bowl couldn't possibly have begun any better for Louisville, then, when Florida's Jeff Driskel threw an inaccurate pass on the first play of the game; it was tipped into the air, picked off by Terell Floyd, and taken in for a 38-yard pick six. Louisville kicked off to start the game and led by a touchdown 15 seconds later. Then, down 24-10 to start the second half, Florida attempted a surprise onside kick. (Digression: When's the last time you saw a double-digit favorite attempt a surprise onside kick?) Not only did Louisville recover it, but Florida committed two personal foul penalties in a scuffle after the play. Louisville started its drive at the Florida 19 and scored on the first play.
In the other 59:30 of the game, Florida won, 23-20. But it didn't matter because of the way each half began.
6. Louisville players targeted at least three times. In the Sugar Bowl preview, I mentioned that Louisville was excellent at testing a secondary's depth. DeVante Parker was a strong No. 1 target for the Cardinals in 2012, but they had quite a few other capable receivers, and Teddy Bridgewater is good enough to repeatedly check down to the open guy. But Louisville unleashed even more variety than I expected in this one. Parker was targeted just three times (he caught two passes for 32 yards and a touchdown), but Damian Copeland was targeted six times (two catches for 31 yards and a touchdown), Eli Rogers five times (four catches, 62 yards), Andrell Smith four times (four catches, 55 yards), running back Jeremy Wright three times (three catches, 19 yards), and Kai Dominguez three times (one catch, one yard). Florida held Parker in check for the most part, but Rogers and Smith killed the Gators.
5. Florida personal fouls. The thing about a team as tough and physical as Florida is that, if you can match the physicality for a while, if you can stand up to the hard hits, the big puncher might run out of big punches. In this sense, Florida was Mike Tyson from Punch-Out. They came out throwing uppercuts, Louisville kept converting third downs, and the Gators short-circuited.
- On Louisville's first play from scrimmage, Teddy Bridgewater left the pocket and threw on the run, and Jeff Bostic got called for roughing by lighting him up after the throw.
- Down 17-3, Sharrif Floyd committed a face-mask penalty that turned a 3rd-and-10 into a first down from Florida's 12; Louisville scored two plays later.
- At the start of the second half, after the failed onside kick, both Loucheiz Purifoy and Chris Johnson committed personal fouls, and Johnson was ejected; Louisville scored on a one-play, 19-yard drive.
- Later in the third quarter, Florida's sideline got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty -- a completely unforgivable and ridiculous offense -- turning a 2nd-and-3 for the Florida offense into a 2nd-and-18.
Penalties of aggressiveness can be a good thing, and no team (no defense, specifically) was more capable of such penalties than Florida. They tried to set an early tone and intimidate Louisville. It didn't work. And then Florida just malfunctioned.
Stand up to the bully, and he'll melt down. Louisville did just that, and they have a shiny Sugar Bowl trophy to put in a trophy case that will likely continue to grow the longer Charlie Strong is around. In my preview, I said that "Louisville is on a lovely upward trajectory, but this team probably isn't ready to become a BCS bowl champion just yet." I stand corrected. Well done, Cards.
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