Matt Elam leads Florida’s dominant defense

NEW ORLEANS — Matt Elam loves a challenge. That could be bad news for Teddy Bridgewater because the Florida safety sees the record-setting quarterback and his Louisville teammates as just that.

Elam took it as a challenge when there was doubt he could play in the Southeastern Conference — now he’s an All-American. He took it as a challenge when Florida coach Will Muschamp said he was “too soft’’ — now he’s an athlete with 4 percent body fat.

And now he has the challenge of defending the Cardinals’ vaunted passing game in the Sugar Bowl. Bridgewater has passed for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns while completing just under 70 percent of his passes — a clear danger to any secondary.

“I love a challenge,’’ Elam said again when asked about Louisville’s potent offense.

Elam is Florida’s defensive game-changer, and he might be the most important player on the field Wednesday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

That’s saying a lot because the Gators rank first nationally in pass efficiency defense (91.5) and sixth in run defense (96.6 yards per game). Florida has allowed the second-fewest touchdowns (17) in the country behind Notre Dame’s 10, and the 12.9 points per game the Gators have given up is the school’s fewest since 1964 (9.8).

The Gators relied heavily on their defense throughout an 11-1 regular season, perhaps leaning more on Elam than any other player. He has notched five or more tackles in eight games, leads his team with four interceptions and ranks second with 65 tackles and 10 tackles for loss.

Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson knows full well his team has to keep an eye on the 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior.

“Elam embodies everything you want at that position,’’ Watson said. “He’s a guy that impacts the game. He can wreck the game for you.’’

When Watson talks to Bridgewater about Elam, he does not have to say much.

“Florida has athletes all over the place,’’ Bridgewater said, “but Elam is a freak of nature. You have to know where he is at all times.’’

How much does Elam mean to Florida? His teammates wait for him to make big plays.

“It’s like one of those things you feel coming up,” said Josh Evans, the Gators’ other starting safety. “It can be a third-down spot and, if the ball is in the air, he’s probably going to make a great play on it.’’

Elam made the biggest play against LSU in October, perhaps saving a game the Gators seemed destined to lose — and possibly rescuing Florida’s season.

The Tigers, in control and never seemingly in trouble despite their slim 6-0 lead, faced third-and-7 when quarterback Zach Mettenberger dropped back to pass. Mettenberger avoided the pass rush just in time to launch a deep pass to receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Beckham ran under the ball and raced toward the end zone, but that’s when Elam closed and knocked the ball out of Beckham’s hands right before he was tackled. Florida recovered the fumble after the officials originally ruled Beckham down.

“That play defined our season,” cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. “It showed we’re a team that won’t quit.’’

Evans agreed.

“That was probably the play of the game in my eyes,’’ he said. “That was a big turnaround. They made a big play, and we made a big play right back.’’

Elam, not given to hyperbole, even admitted, “It probably did save the game — and the season.’’

When something as important to Elam as winning and losing is on the line, he’ll often tip the balance. Part of it is his competitive personality, said his brother Abram, a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs.

“I’ve played with and against some of the most talented players in the league, and growing up I can say Matt is one of only two people I know besides (longtime NFL receiver) Anquan Boldin that hates to lose as much as he does,” he said. “He does everything in his power to win. ... He hates to lose more than anything.’’

Elam had surgery in January after a groin injury hampered him during the final five games of 2011. The injury kept Elam from practicing on Mondays and Tuesdays last season, but he still ranked second on the team in tackles (78) while leading the Gators in tackles for loss (11.0).

“He’ll be a handful,’’ Watson said. “We’ll have to know where he is at all times.’’