Coming into the 2013 Sugar Bowl a 14-point underdog, Louisville’s 33-23 defeat of Florida is the biggest upset in BCS history. More impressive is that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had his way against the vaunted Gator defense, Charlie Strong flexed his defensive muscles against his former team, and the Cardinals actually won in a fashion more dominant than the final score would indicate.
And moments after celebratory confetti fell on Strong, I heard a national radio host dismiss the win as the result of Florida not caring. Danny Sheridan lamented the Sugar Bowl loss as the result of the Gators having “nothing to play for.” Excuses, excuses; meaningless, but all too common.
Every March, the nation’s sports fans rally around Cinderella. The long shots who have little realistic hope of winning the national championship become basketball’s darlings. Football culture doesn’t embrace Cinderella in the same way — a shame, because the Cardinals’ win was Butler sucker-punching Michigan State in the Final Four. It was George Mason knocking off Connecticut. It was VCU blitzing Kansas.
OK, so maybe those comparisons aren’t quite accurate. Louisville isn’t exactly some lower tiered program, no matter how the Worldwide Leader portrays the Big East. After all, with tonight’s win, the Big East moved to a perfect 4-0 against the mighty SEC on the 2012 season. Louisville became a consistent winner in the mid-2000s under Bobby Petrino, and Strong’s restored the program to that level in three short years.
And yet, No. 22 coming from nowhere and blindsiding a No. 3 some theorized was worthy of a national championship shot bears a striking resemblance to the madness of March. Traditional powerhouse is expected to steamroll, but fails to account for an excellent game plan, executed to perfection.
Bridgewater’s rapid ascent from highly touted recruit to bona fide Heisman contender reached its apex — current apex, anyway — throwing for 266 yards and two touchdowns against the nation’s No. 13 pass defense. This, less than 15 months after Bridgewater threw for just 173 yards in a 14-7 loss to North Carolina.
Bridgewater has been the muse of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, hired midway through the 2011 season. The quarterback’s progression began almost immediately after Watson replaced Mike Sanford, and hasn’t stopped.
While Teddy Ballgame and his burgeoning Heisman candidacy stole the Sugar Bowl spotlight, the stifling defensive strategy that set the tone for UL was the deciding factor. A young Cardinal defense that gave up 34 points to North Carolina, 35 to Pitt and 45 to Syracuse had Gator quarterback Jeff Driskel scrambling for his life and held Mike Gillislee to 48 yards rushing.
Maybe the Gators’ loss can be chalked up to listlessness. But then, that would require some heavy duty cognitive dissonance, ignoring the pride of program and potential NFL stock Gators had at stake. Tell Matt Elam, who played with the same reckless abandon he exhibited throughout the season that the Sugar Bowl was meaningless. Maybe inform Jon Bostic that he was uninspired. They might beg to differ.
No, the story isn’t Florida’s perceived effort. The story of the Sugar Bowl is Jeremy Wright working for every inch that went into his game high 84 yards, or Damian Copeland sticking with a play and recovering what could have been a costly fumble. The story of the Sugar Bowl is one of Cinderella, and a reminder that the underdog can win on the gridiron just as it does on the hardwood.