NEW ORLEANS — Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater began his night by picking himself off the turf of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, hobbling for a few disjointed steps and attempting to regain his senses.
Florida middle linebacker Jon Bostic came free on Louisville’s first offensive play and dislodged Bridgewater’s helmet with a crushing blow to the head, earning a personal foul penalty.
From there, however, the Florida Gators barely touched Bridgewater, who was named MVP of the 79th Allstate Sugar Bowl, helping No. 21 Louisville (11-2, 5-2 Big East) upset No. 3 Florida (11-2. 7-1 Southeastern Conference) 33-23 with a performance as dizzying as Bostic’s initial hit.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” Bridgewater said of being named MVP of the game. “I had no doubt in my mind that we would beat them.”
Bridgewater completed 20 of his 32 passes, carving up Florida’s defense for 266 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His lone flaw, a third-quarter interception by Florida’s Josh Evans, was a product of a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage.
“Teddy came in and did a great job today,” Evans said. “He went through his progressions, made his reads and saw some of the coverages we was lacking in.”
Bridgewater’s accuracy — he completed 69 percent of his passes during the regular season — was put on display as he fit passes in tight windows throughout the night.
The Gators knew what they were up against; they simply couldn’t stop it.
“[Bridgewater] was pretty accurate today, man,” Evans said. “He did a great job.”
Bridgewater was especially proficient when facing third down. Florida’s defense came into the game boasting one of the nation’s best third-down units, giving up first downs only about 28 percent of the time.
Led by Bridgewater, Louisville converted 9 of its 14 third downs, including all three during the Cardinals’ first offensive series, which was capped with a touchdown run by Jeremy Wright to take a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter.
“[Bridgewater] is an unbelievable player,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said during his victory press conference after the game. “I’ve always said it. I still believe it. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
Earlier this week, Florida safety Matt Elam raised eyebrows with claims that Bridgewater would be the best quarterback the Gators faced this season. Florida previously faced a number of college football’s most respected passers, including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
After the game, Elam reiterated his views on Bridgewater and Manziel.
“Teddy is way better (than Manziel),” Elam said. “Teddy is way better, hands down, it’s not even close.”
Elam is from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and knew Bridgewater, who also played high school football in South Florida, from a young age. Now, the rest of the country is starting to see the type of talent Bridgewater is, something Elam said he has known all along.
“Last week when he was limping around, he brought them back (to beat Rutgers on 20-17 on Nov. 29.),” Elam said. “Teddy, man, he is a great player.”
Bridgewater’s accomplishments came in stark contrast to the performance turned in by Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel. Driskel, also a sophomore, put his youth on full display with a number of poor reads and a lack of poise in the pocket.
Whereas Bridgewater created time for himself with heady pocket presence, Driskel looked uncomfortable facing any type of pass rush and failed to look off his first read most of the night.
Driskel’s first pass of the game, intended for Andre Debose, deflected into the hands of Louisville’s Terrell Floyd, who returned the interception 38 yards for a touchdown. Driskel vowed the opening series wasn’t weighing on him the rest of the game, but the results suggest otherwise.
Florida’s second-year quarterback finished the game completing 16 of his 29 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown along with two interceptions. Most of his stats came when Florida was trailing by multiple touchdowns late in the game.
“It’s unfortunate they score on the first play of the game,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “That kind of sets the momentum against us.”
Bridgewater helped Louisville outscore any opponent the Gators had faced this season. Florida State’s 26 points were the previous best, something Louisville surpassed behind its young quarterback.
That success, Bridgewater said, came from a mindset he developed from watching the struggles of other quarterbacks against Florida’s defense.
“They faced guys forcing throws and things like that,” Bridgewater said. “Trying to play with an S on their chest. And coach Ross tells me: ‘No capes on your back. No S on your chest. Just take what the defenses gives you.’ That’s what I took.”
Though he might have been told not to try and be Superman, Bridgewater turned in a superhero-like performance in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night.
“I’ve been saying it all along,” Calvin Pryor said. “[Bridgewater] is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and one of the best players in the nation.”