We see this every bowl season – teams that are excited to be in a particular bowl play up to their capability while other teams play as if their venue is beneath them.
Stanford and Wisconsin were both pleased to be part of a traditional Big Ten versus Pac-12 matchup in The Granddaddy Of Them All, the Rose Bowl. For the first quarter and half of the second Florida seemed bored being in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, playing as if a non-championship BCS game against a Big East team would be a walk-through.
The result: a Rose Bowl classic and a Sugar Bowl first half that Florida would rather forget. Which is consistent, because the Gators certainly forgot to bring their “A” game for the kickoff.
A full and enthusiastic full house in Pasadena rooted on an old-school example of power football. Two teams that run behind tight ends and a fullback lead on offense, mixing in some play-action to keep the defense honest. Both defenses physical and aggressive, true to their character, played the run and read pass to pressure the quarterback and cover well.
Stanford executed flawlessly on the opening drive, running scripted plays all the way to the end zone. The Cardinal ran almost half the first quarter clock on that drive.
Stanford’s defense made a quick stop and got off the field. The offense marched down again, 14-0. Two touchdowns on two possessions to dominate the first quarter.
Wisconsin answered in the second quarter with balanced play calling and a tweaked defense. Stanford prevailed, but Wisconsin was in it until the end.
Thousands of Sugar Bowl seats went unpurchased by Florida fans. Louisville fans showed up in force. The teams reflect the unbalanced enthusiasm. Louisville DB in good coverage on the opening play of the game. Driskel’s pass off target, receiver gets fingertips on it, DB does the tip drill – pick six. Louisville gets a defensive stop, long march to second touchdown – 14-0.
This, however, is a different two-touchdown lead from the Rose Bowl. Florida is not being true to character. The Gators are getting stuffed on the run. They don’t convert on third downs. They don’t protect the pocket. Their defense gets burned.
The Gators get on the board with a field goal at the start of second quarter. They finally wake up at the end of the half to score a touchdown.
The Cardinals score on their first four possessions and hold a 24-10 halftime lead.
The only way Florida acts like the team that only lost one game all season? The Gators, most penalized team in the SEC, pick up eight penalties in the first half.
Second half I’m watching the same Sugar Bowl. Florida plays out of character from the kickoff, going for their first onside kick attempt of the entire season. I think ESPN’s Chris Spielman is right, it’s a sign of desperation.
Credit Louisville Head Coach Charlie Strong for having his “hands team” on the field. A receiver collected the onside kick and wrapped his body around it.
A Gator on the kickoff team commits two personal fouls and gets ejected from the game. Both fouls are enforced, putting the ball on the Gator 19-yardline. Terry Bridgewater immediately throws into the end zone – Louisville 30, Florida 10.
The entire third quarter Louisville moves the ball, Florida does not. Louisville squanders additional scoring opportunities, missing an extra point, two field goals, and gets no points after a goal-to-go opportunity. Louisville maintains a twenty-point lead by pressuring Driskel and sacking him. Florida does not have the receivers to stretch the field and when they are open Driskel holds the ball too long.
Finally, with 1:46 remaining in the third quarter, Florida makes a play. A D-lineman tips a Bridgewater pass and the defensive back alertly pushes the receiver out of the way – permitted after the tip, Spielman points out – and secures the interception. Starting this drive in Louisville territory, Florida runs the ball like Florida as the third quarter ends.
Switching to the other end of the field, Florida takes advantage of Lousville’s excellent pursuit with a reverse for a first down. The Gators follow up with a nicely developing screen pass. Two nice calls in a row – but Driskel fails again to get the ball out again, hit and almost sacked as he throws incomplete.
A couple runs get stuffed. Driskel passes again, too high – Louisville DB Andrew Johnson intercepts in the end zone and returns it to the 20-yardline.
12:48 left in the game, Bridgewater milking the clock. Another running play keeps the defense honest. Bridgewater completes a pass for a first down.
A couple plays later Bridgewater passes for another first down, then he hands off and for the first time in the game Louisville gains serious yardage on the ground. Nine yards on one carry, twenty-five on another – this last the longest run from scrimmage the Gators have allowed all season. Louisville marches deep enough for their kicker to make a thirty-yard field goal. Louisville up 33-10 with just 7:54 left on the clock.
Louisville native Muhammad Ali participated in the pregame coin toss. A Cardinals fan holds up a sign with a photo of Ali in the ring standing over Sonny Liston with the caption, “We shocked the world!”
Under eight minutes to go, wrapped up, right? Except Louisville has the worst Big East kickoff coverage. Florida runs back the kick for a touchdown. 33-17.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp gambles again with an onside kick because Florida hasn’t stopped Louisville yet. Kick goes out of bounds, plus five yards for another Florida penalty (off sides).
Gators finally get a stop, but Louisville downs their first punt of the night (!) on the Florida 3-yardline. DE Preston Brown almost sacks Driskel again, almost intercepted.
Gillesley rushes to the 20-yardline, a 17-yard gain. Driskel hits a pass for another first down, another short pass, 4:30 left and counting. Driskel scrambles but gets tackled short. On third down he converts on another pass. Time stops for an injury, but there’s only 3:46 left and Florida is sixteen points down.
A couple incompletions, a big gain to the Louisville 2-yardline, a loss to the 5-yardline and time run off the clock, then a nice tight end delay for a touchdown pass. Florida is still alive.
Until Louisville sacks Driskel on the 2-point conversion attempt. Louisville grabs the onside kick with a minute and a half left and a ten-point lead. Louisville actually makes yardage and gets a first down, takes a couple knees, and celebrates a 33-23 win – Sugar Bowl champions.
Louisville head coach Charlie Strong turned down offers from Tennessee and other programs that were hiring. Teddy Bridgewater says after the game, “I thought Coach Strong was gone, him staying shows the loyalty he has to these players.” After the championship trophy goes to Charlie Strong, Bridgewater receives the Sugar Bowl Most Outstanding Player trophy.
Louisville has spent a lot in facilities upgrades and will move the ACC. In Coach Strong’s third year the future looks bright.
Florida, two-touchdown favorites, will hurt for a while, but with a top recruiting class the Gators might actually be better next year.