NEW ORLEANS — Teddy Bridgewater strolled to the sideline, unhooked his chin straps and turned the corner of his mouth into a smirk.
With three minutes left in the first half of the Sugar Bowl, Louisville’s sophomore quarterback signaled for timeout at the behest of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who noticed a potential flaw in pass protection.
Not that it altered the Cardinals’ intentions on third-and-13 at the 15-yard line of No. 3 Florida.
“We were going to run the exact same play as we did before,” Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker said.
The formation wasn’t tweaked. Parker trotted into the lone spot on the boundary side. Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy remained matched up in man coverage.
And Purifoy had scant doubt Bridgewater’s arm could fulfill its part of the bargain as he came out of his break on a corner with Purifoy stumbling in pursuit.
“I had to double fake the defender, then after that I just ran straight toward the back pylon,” Parker said. “Teddy put it where it needed to be.”
Lofting a perfect back-shoulder throw, Bridgewater’s first touchdown pass in a 33-23 victory encapsulated an evening that typified efficiency in earning MVP honors.
The Miami native finished with 266 yards passing and two touchdowns on 20-of-32 passing against the nation’s No. 12 pass defense, which entered allowing only 186.0 yards per game.
“I looked at what did and didn’t work for quarterbacks during the regular season,” Bridgewater said. “They faced guys forcing throws and things like that, trying to force plays, trying to play with an ‘S’ on their chest.”
Bridgewater’s performance was the best against Will Muschamp’s physical-brand of man-to-man coverage, and his 146.7 passer rating was second only to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel’s outing against Florida in a 20-17 loss in early September.
“They have a great defense; don’t get me wrong,” Louisville tight end Eli Rogers said. “But we’ve got a great receiving corps. So it’s just about sticking with the techniques and fundamentals that made you that way.”
Meanwhile, Louisville coach Charlie Strong was effusive in doling of plaudits for his signal-caller.
“I’ve said it, he’s one of the best quarterbacks,” Strong said. “If you look out there on the field tonight, you look at what Florida has, you look at what we have, and he’s the best probably. Not, probably. He was the best player on the field.”
Bridgewater’s discretion, though, blended with brilliance on the Cardinals’ first series, already leading 7-0 after cornerback Terrell Floyd’s 38-yard interception return on the first play of the game.
On a third-and-14 at his 28, Bridgewater fired a dart up the seam to Rogers, a teammate from Miami Northwestern High, for a critical 25-yard pick up into Gators territory.
“He’s made for moments like this, and always showed up in big games,” Rogers said. “What he did tonight was great, but it’s nothing he hasn’t done.”
Later, he passed on a difficult throw to the post for a checkdown to reserve running back Corvin Lamb that netted a 7-yard pickup on third-and-6 to the Gators 24.
Two plays after that, running back Jeremy Wright trotted in from a yard out for a 14-0 lead with 6:47 left in the first quarter.
On its opening drive of the second half, Louisville reverted to the same call that put it ahead 24-3.
Only in this incarnation, Bridgewater made the same peerless throw to Damian Copeland for a 30-10 lead a mere eight seconds into the third quarter.
“It was on the money, and I knew coming out of my break, I had it,” Copeland said. “I was just looking for the ball.”
For Bridgewater, who suffered a broken wrist and sprained ankle in a loss to Connecticut on Nov. 24, it was a redemptive outing for a nascent program and the much-maligned Big East Conference.
“We were the underdogs coming into this game, and it just meant a lot — not just to this team,” Bridgewater said. “We have our fans; they’re showing their support. They’ve been with us since Day 1. For us to just get this win and put Louisville back on the map, it means a lot.”
And the Cardinals’ know the man responsible for applying the redemptive balm.
“Teddy is the man,” Copeland said. “We all believe in Teddy. He got it done tonight.”
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