Next week our Louisville Cardinal Football team will play its most important game of the season as the program makes its very first appearance in the Sugar Bowl. At the beginning of the football season Cards fans were asked to “Get on the Train.” That train ride has been a fun one but it has had a few bumps along the way. Now as that train is prepared to make its final stop in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl I want to look back at all those stops along the way and then make my prediction about how this journey will end.
-Stop #1 September 2nd University of Kentucky:
The “Battle of the Bluegrass” really wasn’t much of a battle at all as most had predicted. It was the battle of two football programs going in very different directions. The Cardinals outclassed the Cats in every aspect of this game talent, coaching, and execution. Louisville established offensive dominance early starting the game with some monster scoring drives of 99, 85 and 93 yards. The Cards scored 5 times on their first 7 drives. UK started off with an impressive drive of its own but just didn’t have the fire power to match Louisville’s intensity. Coach Strong put this game in cruise control in the 3rd quarter putting in his back-up QB Will Stein. Louisville was lead by Teddy Bridgewater who had 232 yards passing, Jeremy Wright who had 105 yards with 3 TD’s, and Senorise Perry who had 108 yards with 1 TD. Cardinals ended a three game home losing streak to Kentucky. Beating the Cats for the second year in a row 32-14 and the Governor’s Cup remained where it belongs in the Louisville trophy case.
-Stop #2 September 8th The Missouri State Bears:
Teddy QB had a career day completing 30 of 39 passes 344 yards and touchdowns to tight ends Nate Nord and Ryan Hubbell. He would connect with 10 different receivers to help keep the Cardinals in control throughout the day. Louisville racked up 475 yards of total offense and was a combined 11 of 17 converting on third and fourth downs. Charles Gaines had a game-high 73 yards including a 55-yard deep ball in his first time seeing action for the Cards. Eli Rogers had six receptions. Senorise Perry led the team in rushing again this week with 72 yards and one touchdown. The Cardinal defense did its part as well, holding the MSU offense to just 249 yards of total offense on the day. UofL was really effective in stoping the Bears’ rushing attack, limiting MSU to 99 yards on 31 carries. Calvin Pryor led the defense with eight tackles and one interception. Lorenzo Mauldin had one sack. Missouri St did provide some competitive spirit but they were no match for a stingy Louisville defense and offense that wouldn’t disappoint as QB Teddy Bridgewater lead the team to a solid victory 35-7.
-Stop #3 September 15th The University of North Carolina Tarheels:
Louisville once again looked very impressive in this one beating a solid ACC team in North Carolina. Louisville built a 39-14 lead before slipping into conservative zone coverage in the fourth quarter and giving up 20 late points and it was about ten more than most fans in the crowd and at home would have liked to see. The Cardinals were once again paced by the strong arm of Teddy QB who was quickly becoming one of the best players in the Big East. Bridgewater threw for another 3 touchdowns on 23/28 passing and no turnovers. At this point in the season Teddy QB had not thrown a pick and was an astounding 72 of 88 throwing the ball. Ten different receivers were the beneficiaries of passes from Bridgewater and running back Jeremy Wright paced the Cardinals ground attack with 114 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. The Cardinals offense dominated the ball for 17 more minutes than UNC and the Cardinals steady defense accounted for two turnovers and made things difficult for UNC quarterback Bryn Renner until late in the game when they dropped back into zone. Cards would win this one 39-34 in front of the 4th largest crowd ever in Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium.
-Stop #4 September 22nd The Florida International University Golden Panthers:
This would be the toughest out of the young season for our Cards. Teddy QB had his worst showing of the season in this one, struggling early in his return to his home town. Bridgewater finished with 194 yards passing on 19-36 attempts, more incompletions than in his first three games combined. He also threw 2 interceptions and stalled a few drives with poor passes. Louisville’s D was strong in this game, a game marred with heavy downpours at times. The defense held the Panthers to 320 yards total offense and their hard hitting ways forced both of FIU’s tailbacks out of the game. While their performance was underwhelming, The Cards continued to show quite a bit of character and remained neck in neck with Rutgers as most impressive teams in the conference at that point in the season. Teddy QB had his toughest night of the season but he was determined not to let his homecoming be spoiled by the Panthers and would lead his team to the victory 28-21 as the Cards went to 4-0 for the first time since 2006.
-Stop #5 September 29th The Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles:
Louisville struggled to put away the Golden Eagles in this game. Teddy QB was average for his second straight game out as the Cardinals chose to focus on the run to get the job done on the road. Bridgewater threw for a minimal 85 yards a touchdown and a pick, those had been quarter numbers for Bridgewater in those earlier games but he was flustered much of the night in this one. Louisville got a great performance on the ground from running back Senorise Perry who had 118 yards and two touchdowns. They also got 84 yards from Jeremy Wright who continues to impress as the change of pace back. Louisville’s defense kept Southern Miss off the field and the offense commanded the clock and got the win which is all that matters. It was a gutsy effort for our young Cards to overcome such harsh conditions to get the win 21-17 as they moved to 5-0 on the season giving them their best start since 2006.
-Stop #6 October 13th The Pittsburgh Panthers:
Our Cards were impressive in getting this 10 point victory on the road vs. Pittsburgh. This game was close for most of the first half and Louisville trailed by 4 at the half. Whatever adjustments or pep talks the Cardinals received in the locker room registered as Louisville blew this contest open in the second half. Senorise Perry rushed for 3 touchdowns, including a strong 59 yard run late in the game and Louisville opened up a 17 point lead and never looked back. Teddy QB threw for just over 300 yards and a TD and was his usual efficient self. Overall, Louisville amassed 460 yards of total offense and turned in a turnover free performance. Our Cards went to Pittsburg on this Saturday morning and took care of business winning the game 45-35. With the win, the Cardinals put themselves in an elite group with only 10 other teams being undefeated at that time. The Cards were now 6-0 on the season and were ranked #16 in the AP top 25 and #14 in the USA Today Poll. This is the highest since the Cards were ranked ninth in both polls back in 2007. This was also only the 5th time in school history that the football program had started 6-0. The other years were (1925, 1957, 1972, and 2006).
-Stop #7 October 20th The South Florida Bulls:
Louisville came into this game 6-0 on the season and ranked 16th in the polls at that time. This South Florida team who has been reeling for weeks but gave the conference leading Cardinals their best shot in this one. Louisville got off to a hot start behind the strong backfield play of Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright who scored both touchdowns in the second quarter to give the Cardinals a 14-3 lead at the half. Teddy QB was a non-factor in the first half but displayed some serious heroics in the second half. After throwing a TD early in the third quarter, Bridgewater found his team behind 25-21 with 1:35 remaining when he hit wideout Eli Rogers with the game winning touchdown. Bridgewater finished with 256 yards on an extremely efficient 21-25 passing and 2 touchdowns. The Cardinals defense had one of their worst outings of the year giving up nearly 200 yards on the ground to a South Florida team who has been plagued with a non-existent running game all year. Louisville also played in undisciplined fashion racking up 75 yards in penalties. The Bulls came to Louisville on this day with one thing on their minds. They wanted to start the second half of their season off right and spoil the Cards Homecoming. But Teddy QB and company were determined not to let that happen as they survived a gutsy effort by South Florida winning the Homecoming battle 27-25. With the win our Cards moved to 2-0 in the Big East and 7-0 on the season for just the third time in school history. The last time this had happened was in 1925 and 2006.
-Stop #8 October 26th The Cincinnati Bearcats “Keg of Nails”:
Our Cards escaped a tough battle with Cincinnati in this one with an OT victory and in doing so they would remain undefeated on the season. The Cardinals and Bearcats exchanged big play for big play and multiple TD’s in one of the most exciting 4th quarters in all of college football this season. Teddy QB continued his stellar sophomore campaign throwing for 416 yards and two touchdowns both in impressive fashion in the 4th quarter to Devante Parker. The 64 yard touchdown was followed up by an amazing 64 yards catch where Parker bobbled the pass and tight-roped the back of the end zone as he regained possession for the score. Parker finished with 4 catches for 120 yards. The defense secured Louisville’s second straight close home win as they intercepted Munchie Legaux in the first overtime and the Cardinals kicked an easy field goal for the win. The Cards sprinted toward the end zone at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium like kids at Christmas. Sitting idly on the turf was the coveted Keg of Nails, awarded annually to the winner of the Cincinnati/Louisville football game. For the first time in four years, the Cards laid their claws on the prize. Not since October 13, 2007 had UofL beaten the Bearcats. But, after four consecutive losses, the Cardinals tasted victory, winning 34-31 on a rainy, windswept evening in Louisville.
-Stop #9 November 3rd The Temple Owls:
After three straight close wins vs. conference foes, the Cardinals made easy work of a Temple team that had been trending south quickly at that time. The Cardinals racked up 508 total yards and pitched a scoreless second half effort on defense. Teddy QB was once again phenomenal. The sophomore gunslinger was 19-28 for 324 yards, 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions the type of flawless performances we were becoming accustomed to seeing every week. Running back Jeremy Wright was equally efficient, carrying the ball 10 times for 100 yards and a TD. Wide receiver Andrell Smith had 2 TD’s from Bridgewater and Devante Parker also reeled in another one despite a quiet 2 reception afternoon. Despite giving up an opening possession 93 yard kickoff return, the Cardinals dominated the game in all facets. I was bursting with Cardinal Pride after this game and it was a “Hoot” watching our #10 Cards remain undefeated with a 45-17 victory over Temple. 20 years from now I’ll be watching a Louisville Cardinal Football game with my son and they will do a trivia segment: When was Louisville’s first 9-0 start? And I’ll smile and remember that day.
-Stop #10 November 10th The Syracuse Orange:
Our Cards fell behind 31-10 and never recovered in this one. Despite the lopsided loss, Teddy QB was once again solid. He threw for 424 yards and 3 touchdowns but unfortunately the Cardinals inability to stop the Orange on D was too much to overcome. Louisville gained under 50 yards on the ground and turned the ball over twice in the defeat. The Louisville Cardinal football team’s quest for a perfect season would come to an end on this day as the “Annoying” Orange overwhelmed the Cards in a 45-26 rout.
-Stop #11 November 24th The Connecticut Huskies:
In a 2 game stretch that was anything but a November to remember our Cards were unable to get anything going throughout the afternoon against a UConn D that had been the only consistency on their football team of the season. Teddy QB was 30-53 for 331 yards and 2 TD’s but it was his lone interception on the day that cost the Cardinals as UConn would kick the game winning field goal three plays later. DeVante Parker, Bridgewater’s intended target on the OT interception, was the lone bright spot for Louisville, hauling in 8 passes for 91 yards and 2 TD’s. Jeremy Wright was held in check to only 43 yards and Bridgewater was sacked numerous times resulting in -29 yards rushing for the QB. With the loss falling at home in triple overtime to 5-7, 2-5 Connecticut 23-20. Louisville had now lost 2 straight games after starting the season 10-0.
-Stop #12 November 29th The Rutgers Scarlet Knights:
Our Cards trailed in this one 14-3, but were able to seize the lead 17-14 with two touchdowns within 16 seconds of each other at the end of the third quater with Teddy QBs’ 14-yard and 20-yard passes to junior running back Jeremy Wright and sophomore wide receiver DeVante Parker. The Cards struck early on with a freshman punter John Wallace 20-yard field goal. Wallace won the game with 1:41 left from 29 yards away. The Cards forced three turnovers and held a commanding 42:11-17:49 edge in time of possession over the Scarlet Knights. This game would be an instant classic as Teddy QB showed us a heroic effort playing essentially with one arm and on one leg to get this victory for his team in the 20-17 comeback win. This win would give Louisville a share of the Big East Title and put them in the Sugar Bowl.
-Stop #13 January 2nd The Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl:
Here we are Cardinal fans at the end of our journey. It sure has been a season to remember and a train ride that was more like a roller coaster. This young Cardinal football team literally weathered the storms of this season and when it seemed like they were gonna be done they kept fighting. And the reward for their efforts is a game with SEC powerhouse Florida. The only thing that kept the Gators from playing No. 1 Notre Dame for the National Championship was a 17-9 loss to No. 7 Georgia on a neutral field. So to say they are a formidable foe is an understatement. Of the Cardinals’ 10 victories six came by slim margins. I’m hopeful that carries over to playing the Gators who have embraced four one-possession wins. Florida didn’t look like world-beaters in victories over Bowling Green 27-14 or Louisiana-Lafayette 27-20. The Gators however got wins which matters most and took down the Atlanta Coast Conference Champion No. 12 Florida State 37-26. Florida has played five opponents ranked 12th or higher in the current BCS Standings, managing an impressive record of 4-1.
The Gators love running the ball down their opponents throats, and will challenge the Cards defensive front more than any team this season. The Gators are lead in the ground attack by senior Mike Gillislee. He has 1,104 yards on the season with 10 touchdowns. He had a huge outing in the Gators last game of the season against Florida St. He finished that one with 140 yards and two touchdowns. Their second leading rusher is Quarter Back Jeff Driskel with 404 yards on the ground this season with four touchdowns. Their third leading rusher is Matt Jones. He has 259 yards on the season with two touchdowns. He played perhaps his best game of the season in the Gators last game against Florida St where he had 81 yards and a touchdown. The Gators have seven players in the offensive backfield with over a hundred yards on the ground. They love to attack teams between the tackles and have plenty of size and strength to do it. If our defensive linemen and line-backers don’t come into this one ready to play its going to be a long day in New Orleans for our Cards.
The Gators love their running game but they can also hurt teams through the air. Quarter Back Jeff Driskel has 1471 yards through the air on the season with 11 touchdown passes and only 3 interceptions. His main target in the passing attack is Junior TE Jordan Reed. He has 44 receptions, for 552 yards and three touchdowns. Second in the pecking order is sophomore WR Quinton Dunbar. He has 31 receptions, for 306 yards and four touchdowns on the season. And like in the Gators rushing attack they are also very deep and balanced in their passing attack having 6 guys over a hundred yards in receiving.
The Gators rank nationally 188th in passing yards with 143.9 a game, 35th in rushing yards with 194.1 a game, 76th in points for with 26.8 a game, and 3rd in points against with 12.9 a game.
The Cards will be without their main ground threat in this one as Senorise Perry got hurt in the Syracuse game and will not return until next season. The Cards will rely on junior running back Jeremy Wright who has 740 yards and nine touchdowns this season. They will also count on freshman running back Corvin Lamb to contribute. He has 45 yards and one touchdown this season. The key to the Cardinals attack is in the passing game where Teddy QB will be fully healthy and be back under center. He has a 69% completion rate with 3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. His main target will be sophomore wide receiver DeVante Parker. Parker has been awesome in big games this season and will need to continue that streak if the Cards are to get this major upset. He has 712 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. Bridgewater will also be looking for junior wide receiver Damian Copeland to shake loose from his defender. He has also been important to this teams success. He has 597 yards and one touchdown on the season. As important as the running attack is for Florida the air attack is equally important to the Cards. There have been 10 different players catch at least one touchdown from the arm of Teddy QB this season. And if the Cards are to be Sugar Bowl champs it will be through the air.
The Cardinals rank nationally 24th in passing yards with 298.6 a game, 100th in rushing yards with 127.1 a game, 48th in points for with 31.0 a game, and 37th in points against with 23.8 a game.
Louisville comes to New Orleans with something to prove. With no victories against a top 25 opponent this year. This will be the very first time in the Sugar Bowl for the football program while it will be the 9th appearance for the Florida Gators.
Emotions will be high in this game as our players will come in with a chip on their shoulders and especially wanting to get this win for Coach Strong who decided to stay with his team and finish what they started. The sub plot to this game is that this will be the first time Coach Strong will face his old team since leaving Gainesville for Louisville. The Louisville fans are also ready for this one as they will double the Florida crowd and have already bought up almost 15,000 tickets. Last I checked Florida was struggling to sell 5 or 6 thousand. Turning New Orleans into LOU-Orleans has to help.
I really don’t think the Florida team will match the emotions of the Cards. Their players and their fan-base will still be pouting that they didn’t make it into the National Title game. What will be the biggest thing to ever happen to the Louisville program will be just another walk through the park for the Gators. That’s why I think they are in for a huge letdown game. Letdowns are very typical in these Bowl Game scenarios and I have seen many upsets over the years. Especially in the Sugar Bowl. I think our Cards come out and punch these guys in the mouth, they will lay down and won’t get back up. The Cards will be Sugar Bowl Champs.
The Beak Prediction:
Louisville 31 Florida 28