By Brett Martel
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS —
Terell Floyd returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown on the first play, dual-threat quarterback Teddy Bridgewater directed several scoring drives and No. 22 Louisville surprised No. 4 Florida 33-23 Wednesday night in the Sugar Bowl.
Shaking off an early hit that flattened him and knocked off his helmet, Bridgewater came back to throw TD passes to DeVante Parker and Damian Copeland.
The two-touchdown underdogs from the Big East took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and were never caught. It certainly was a sweet win for Cardinals coach Charlie Strong — he was Florida’s defensive coordinator before leaving after the 2009 season and taking over Louisville.
Down 33-10 midway through the fourth period, the one-loss power from the Southeastern Conference tried to rally late on a 100-yard kickoff return by Andre Debose and a short touchdown pass in the closing minutes. Florida got no closer.
Florida had not trailed by more than 10 points in a game all season, but the Cardinals, who came in as two-touchdown underdogs, got off to quite a start. The Gators did not get on the board until Caleb Sturgis’s 33-yard field goal early in the second quarter, which made it 14-3.
Florida finally got in the end zone with a trick play in the closing seconds of the half. They changed personnel as if to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but lined up in a bizarre combination of swinging-gate and shotgun formations and handed off to Matt Jones.
Jones met only minimal resistance as he crashed into the end zone to cap an 11-play, 74-yard drive that included four straight completions and four straight runs by Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel.
The Gators tried to keep the momentum with a surprise onside kick to open the third quarter, but not only did Louisville recover, Florida’s Chris Johnson was called for a personal foul and ejected for jabbing at Louisville’s Zed Evans. That gave Louisville the ball on the Florida 19, from where Bridgewater needed one play to find Copeland for his score.
On the following kickoff, Evans cut down kick returner Loucheiz Purifoy with a vicious low hit that shook Purifoy up. Soon after, Driskel was sacked hard from behind and stripped by safety Calvin Pryor, who had said days earlier that he thought underdog Louisville was ready to “shock the world.”
Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin recovered on the Florida 4, but the Gators’ defense drove the Cardinals backward and forced a missed field goal.
Wallace had another field goal wiped out by an illegal block and then he missed the re-kick from father back.
After Louisville native Muhammad Ali was on the field for the coin toss, the Cardinals quickly stung the Gators. Floyd, one of nearly three dozen Louisville players from the state of Florida, made the play.
Driskel was 11 of 19 for 110 yards. His interception was only his fourth all year. He was looking for seldom-targeted receiver Andre Debose, who had only two catches all season coming in. The throw was a bit behind Debose and the receiver tipped it, making for an easy catch and score for Floyd.
Oddly, Louisville had only 10 defenders on the field until only moments before the snap, when safety Jermaine Reve darted out from the sideline and immediately found a Florida receiver to cover.
When Louisville’s offense got the ball later in the quarter, the Florida defense, ranked among the best in the nation this season, sought to intimidate the Cardinals with one heavy hit after another. Then again, Cardinals coach Charlie Strong was plenty familiar with many of these Gators — he was their defensive coordinator before moving to Louisville after the 2009 season.
One blow by Jon Bostic knocked Bridgewater’s helmet off moments after he’d floated an incomplete pass down the right sideline. Bostic was called for a personal foul, however, which seemed to get the Cardinals drive rolling. Later, Wright lost his helmet during a 3-yard gain and took another heavy hit before he went down.
Louisville kept coming, though.
B.J. Butler turned a short catch into a 23-yard gain down to the Florida 1. Then Wright punched it in to give the Cardinals an early two-TD lead over a Southeastern Conference opponent that lost only one this season and finished third in the BCS standings, one spot too low to play for a national title in Miami.
Louisville won the Big East berth to this game. They beat Rutgers in late November to virtually lock up the conference title, sealing that win on a late interception by Floyd.