When it was announced that No. 3 Florida would be playing No. 21 Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, many laughed at the pairing, wondering how a two-loss team from the Big East would compete with a team that nearly made the national championship game.
On Wednesday night however, it was the Cardinals that would get the last laugh, thumping the Gators 33-23 in a game that wasn’t close from the onset.
It was an inauspicious start for Florida (11-2), but the team who overcame several rough starts this season was unable to find the second-half magic against Louisville (11-2) it seemingly conjured with ease during the regular season.
Considering the respective crowd turnout, it wasn’t surprising to see Florida mirror its fan base in the first half. The Gators, much like their supporters, looked like a team who didn’t want to be in New Orleans on Wednesday, as a motivated Louisville team fueled by an enthusiastic crowd, stormed out of the gates in the first quarter.
With over a month to prepare, the Florida offense came into the game as a unit looking to build off its best game of the regular season in the finale against Florida State.
However, on the game’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Jeff Driskel’s pass to Andre Debose tipped off the receiver’s outstretched fingers into the arms of Louisville cornerback Terell Floyd. Floyd would return the interception 38-yards for a touchdown, igniting a frenzy on the Louisville sideline and throughout the pro-Louisville crowd in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Gators would be forced into a three-and-out on their next possession, promptly giving the ball to Louisville and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Coming into the game, Florida all-American safety Matt Elam said that the sophomore Bridgewater would be the best quarterback the Gators will play all season.
On Louisville’s first offensive possession, Bridgewater backed up Elam’s talk.
Despite Florida’s efforts to intimidate the Cardinals by providing some early bone-crushing hits, Louisville, led by Bridgewater, remained unfazed during their drive.
Executing on several third-and-long situations, including a 25-pass to Louisville receiver Eli Rogers, and a 12-yard run by Bridgewater himself, the Cardinals’ fearless leader engineered a 12-play, 83-yard drive, ending with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Jeremy Wright to give Charlie Strong’s squad an early two-touchdown lead.
Florida would go on to march right down the field on their next offensive possession, reaching the Louisville 11-yard line before an Xavier Nixon false start penalty on third down pushed UF back to the 16.
The Gators would be forced to settle for a field goal and would hold Louisville to the same result on their next offensive possession.
After another Florida three-and-out however, Louisville, starting on the UF 46, would go to work through the air with Bridgewater completing throws of 24, 17 and 15 yards — the 15 yarder being a perfect over the shoulder catch by DeVante Parker in the end zone — to go up 24-3.
With only 2:57 to go in the first half and a stunned team on the sidelines, Florida’s offense trotted out onto the field desperate for a score before heading into the locker room.
After a modest 3-yard gain by running back Mike Gillislee to start the drive, the offense would get into a rhythm with Driskel firing off consecutive pass completions of 16, 11, 11 and 7 yards to get the Gators deep into Louisville territory.
After consecutive Driskel runs of 9 and 10 yards, the Gators would get to the Louisville eight-yard line, but after three plays, UF was still unable to punch the ball into the end zone.
However, instead of settling for three points, Florida coach Will Muschamp sent his field goal unit onto the field in a shifted formation, with only five players near the ball and the rest lined up to the extreme left.
With utility-player Trey Burton lined up in shotgun formation, running back Matt Jones went in motion. Burton would hand off the snap to Jones, who would barrel his way into the end zone for the Gators’ first touchdown of the game.
Trailing 24-10 to start the third quarter, Muschamp called for a surprising onsides kick attempt, which would not catch the Cardinals off guard.
While giving Louisville good position to start the half would have been bad enough, Florida would also incur a personal foul penalty on the play resulting in an ejection of Gators running back Chris “Juice” Johnson.
It would take only one play for Louisville to find the end zone as Bridgewater hit wide out Damian Copeland for a quick 19-yard touchdown strike to put the Cardinals up 30-10.
Just two plays later, Driskel, after dropping back for a pass would be hit hard by Louisville lineman Calvin Pryor, forcing a fumble and giving the Cardinals the ball at the UF 4.
However, despite having their backs to the wall, UF’s defense didn’t relent, forcing the Cardinals into a field goal, which was missed. Florida’s defense would go on to block the Louisville field goal attempt on its next possession, but after both blocks, UF’s offense was unable to capitalize on the opportunities.
After letting Louisville sustain a six-minute, field goal ending drive, the Gators briefly showed signs of life as kick returner Andre Debose returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to cut the score to 33-17.
Starting on their own 3-yard line on their next possession, the Gators would engineer their longest drive of the night, with Driskel eventually hitting freshman tight end Kent Taylor in the end zone for a five-yard touchdown catch.
But that would be all the Gators would get for the remainder of the game, as Louisville would drive to put the game away, sending the Cardinals away with their second-ever BCS bowl win, and giving head coach Charlie Strong a signature victory over his former team of 15 seasons.
Bridgewater would finish the night with 266 yards passing on 20 of 32 attempts, which was only 20 less yards than Florida would gain on a combined passing and rushing, as the Gators finished with 286 total offensive yards on the night.
While the loss is only the second for the Gators on the year, it undoubtedly taints an otherwise impressive season.
The loss is the first for the Gators in a bowl game since losing to Michigan in the 2008 Capital One Bowl.