The Florida Gators (11-1) and the Louisville Cardinals (10-2) meet today in the 79th Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana. With Florida barely missing out on a spot in the BCS championship game and playing Louisville instead of, perhaps, Oklahoma, as many thought they would before the match-ups were announced, the question is how the Gators will respond.
“Coach how would you answer the question that people would say that maybe the mindset of your team wouldn’t be fully into the game because they are simply playing Louisville?” asked Jason Anderson of ESPN 680 in Louisville.
“I think that’s hogwash,” Muschamp said. “I don’t think there’s anything to that at all. I’ve seen our football team prepare and how they’ve practiced. We’ve been physical, we’ve practiced and prepared the right way. We’re playing a good football team. We have great respect for the opponent.”
So on to the game. Both teams took similar yet somewhat different paths to the game.
Neither team was projected for a BCS bowl when the season began. Both teams played a schedule full of tight, white knuckle games keeping fans on edge throughout games and throughout the season. Both teams overcame adversity repeatedly through the course of the season to make it this far. Both teams had a shot to go undefeated but suffered some tough conference losses. That’s where the similarities end.
The Cardinals got here largely on the strength of their offense led by 6-3 sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The Gators, on the other hand, made it on the strength of a suffocating, opportunistic defense that was among the nation’s leaders in every major statistical category.
The Gators were cruising along to a possible SEC East title and championship game appearance until they lost a heartbreaker to rival Georgia 17-9. The loss left them in a tie for the Eastern division title and out of the SEC championship game yet surprisingly gave them the opportunity to play in the Sugar Bowl. Similarly, Louisville was surprisingly undefeated and headed towards an undivided Big East title until getting blown out by Syracuse on the road 45-26. They then followed that up by losing a close one to UConn in triple overtime 23-20. After falling behind early the next week against Rutgers the Cardinals were then in danger of being shut out of the Big East altogether, but rallied to win 20-17 to claim a share of the Big East title and become the conference’s representative in the BCS.
While having little history on the field, they’ve played only twice with the Gators winning both, these two teams do share some history in personnel. Louisville, of course, is led by former defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. Strong has had four different stints with the Gators, first as a graduate assistant in 1984 then as outside linebackers coach in 88-89, as a defensive assistant and assistant head coach from 1991-94, and finally as defensive coordinator from 2002-2009. In his last stint, of course, he led top ranked defenses which helped win two BCS titles and he coached numerous All-Americans and future NFL players.
They also have a couple of assistants who coached for the Gators as well. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was the Gator’s defensive backs coach in 2008-2009 where he coached Joe Haden into being an All-American and first round draft pick as well as several other defensive backs who have gone on to the NFL. Running backs coach Kenny Carter also served in that position at Florida in the 2008 and 2009 seasons where he coached both Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey in a rushing attack that led the conference. Both coaches were instrumental in helping the Gators to the 2008 BCS title and an undefeated regular season in 2009.
Louisville was also the destination of three players who left the Gators program. Adrian Bushell played for the Gators as a reserve corner back in the 2008-2009 seasons but off the field problems led him to leave the program. He ended up at Cedar Valley Community College in Texas in 2010 and got a second chance with Louisville last season. This season, as a senior, he has been the leader of a young defense which hasn’t been exactly the strength of the team but has played tough in the second half of games allowing the offense to eek out victory after victory. Two other transfers, tight end Gerald Christian and Robert Clark, both from Palm Beach, Florida sat out this season due to NCAA transfer rules and will be eligible to play next season.
Louisville is led by arguably the best quarterback that NOBODY is talking about. Teddy Bridgewater, from Miami, was second in the Big East with 3,452 yards completing an astounding 69% of his passes with 25 td’s and only 7 interceptions. His 161.62 pass efficiency rating was good for 8th nationally. His performance against Rutgers became the signature performance of his brief collegiate career. Bridgewater did not start the game due to a swollen ankle and a broken wrist and the Cardinals found themselves down 17-3 at halftime. Sensing their season and chance at a share of the Big East slipping away, Bridgewater eschewed the injuries, coming off the bench to lead the Cardinals back to a big 20-17 second half victory and this shot at Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
As well as Bridgewater has played, though, he has certainly not faced a defense anywhere near the level that Florida is playing at. The Gators are fifth in the nation in total defense, sixth in rushing defense, first in pass efficiency defense, fourth in third down conversion defense, and third in scoring defense. Amazing stats for any team, but when you consider they played the toughest schedule in the nation those stats become astronomical.
The defense is led by senior middle linebacker Jon Bostic who had a fantastic senior season finishing third on the team in tackles with 62 with 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and six and a half tackles for loss.
“Jon Bostic has played as well as any linebacker in the country, in my opinion,” said Muschamp.
Hard hitting junior safety Matt Elam leads the defensive backs and junior defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd leads the defensive line. Both are expected to leave early for the NFL draft, likely announcing after the game.
The defensive backfield has been the strength of this defense as corners Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins, and Loucheiz Purifoy are equally adept at playing press-man coverage or zone and have helped the Gators to the number one ranking in pass efficiency defense. Hard hitting safties Matt Elam and Josh Evans have been effective at stepping up in the box against the run and sitting back in coverage waiting for the quarterback to make mistakes.
“Matt Elam has had an outstanding year,” according to Muschamp. “Josh Evans has played his best football. All three corners Jaylen, Marcus, and Loucheiz have all played extremely well for us this year. At each position, we’ve played extremely well.”
As a unit, the biggest improvement this season has been their ability to turn the ball over. After finishing last season 114th in the nation in turnover margin, they improved this season to help the Gators finish 5th in the nation in that category.
“Number one is takeaways,” Muschamp said referring to the difference in the Gators between last year and this year. “You really want to look at the difference in seasons, look at turnover margin. We finished top five in the country I believe. But that’s been the huge difference in our football season from this year to last year is turnover margin. As much as anything emphasizing turnovers and creating them.”
Three other guys that have provided valuable depth throughout the season but also have really come on of late as playmakers are freshman defensive ends Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler and freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison. Bullard and Fowler have provided a strong edge rush that has been lacking for a few seasons in Gainesville while Morrison is a big hitting linebacker that wreaks havoc on the opponent. In the FSU game Morrison came in after Jelani Jenkins went down to a season ending knee injury and promptly knocked quarterback E.J. Manuel out of the game for a series and created a fumble which changed the momentum of the game spurring them on to victory.
“The freshman coming in, you look at Antonio Morrison, Bullard, and Fowler, those three guys have been as productive as any freshman I’ve been around,” according to Will Muschamp.
Bridgewater is a strong, athletic quarterback with great accuracy and doesn’t seem to get fazed. While he does have running ability many defenses make the mistake of not respecting his arm or decision-making skills. He is a pass-first type quarterback and is very accurate on the short to intermediate throws but can hurt you if he’s able to get outside the pocket.
“The first thing that jumps out at you is Teddy Bridgewater,” Muschamp said about the Louisville offense. “He’s an outstanding player, he’s accurate. They put a lot on him at the line of scrimmage as far as the run and the pass game. He’s very accurate, I think he makes very good decisions, he creates a lot of off-rhythm plays with his legs. And he scrambles to throw, he’s not scrambling to run it as much as you would think. I think just a really good decision-maker.”
The key to stopping him will be to contain with the pass rush, get a hand in his face, and play good, tight bump coverage off the snap with the corners.
This is where the Gator defense excels. The Gator defensive backs have the size and speed to be disruptive at the line of scrimmage and still maintain route match coverage. The Gator defensive line learned in the game against Texas A&M how to be disciplined in the pass rush to put pressure without losing containment against mobile quarterbacks. While Louisville has a skilled passer in Bridgewater and some good receivers, they will likely struggle against a Gator defense that is playing at peak levels and has had a full month to get healthy.
The Louisville receiving corps is also deep and very talented with five players who had 30 or more catches on the season. The unit is led by speedster Devante Parker who caught 38 passes for 712 yards and 9 touchdowns. Damian Copeland caught 48 passes with one touchdown, Eli Rogers had 44 receptions with four touchdowns, and Andrell Smith had 30 catches with three touchdowns. Running back Jeremy Wright added 38 catches with one touchdown reception.
“A very talented receiving corps,” Muschamp said. “You look at Parker and Rogers and Copeland are all three guys that can make plays in space.”
The Louisville running game splits carries between Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry who have rushed for over 1400 yards and 29 touchdowns combined. While neither back is a home run threat, they are both serviceable backs that are good in space and run a lot of delayed draws and edge rushes out of a one back, shotgun or pistol set.
Lost in the shuffle of the lead-up to the game has been the Gator offense. It has been mostly pedestrian this season as the Gators have focused on establishing the inside, downhill running game. The passing game with a first year starter Jeff Driskel learning on the fly and a less than stellar receiving corps with little depth has struggled establishing any kind of consistency. The only consistent receiver has been tight end Jordan Reed, another junior who is likely to test the NFL draft waters after the Sugar Bowl. Reed led the Gators this season with 44 catches for 552 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Frankie Hammond and sophomore Quinton Dunbar have combined for 51 catches for 579 yards and 7 touchdowns.
The word through the last two weeks of bowl practice has been that the offense has improved incredibly in the passing game as Driskel was able to work on his vision, mechanics, and decision-making without the hassle of gameweek preparation. The receivers, especially Dunbar and the two freshman receivers Latroy Pittman and Raph Andrades, have improved as well. Expect to see the Gators open up the passing game a little more than they have all season.
The running game, of course, has been the Gators strength all season behind the relentless inside rushing of senior Mike Gillislee. The offense did struggle with the running game during a stretch of games between LSU and Florida State but that was mostly due to injuries along the line which kept them from having all five starters playing. They are the healthiest they’ve been all season at this point. Gillislee appears focused during practices in New Orleans and the word is Matt Jones, who played well in relief against FSU, is playing at an extremely high level now. Expect the Gators running game to put up some big numbers against a Louisville defense which was 52nd in the nation against the rush giving up 152 yards per game.
Turnovers always become a big factor in big games and both teams have been efficient at getting them while not giving them up. The Gators created 29 turnovers on the season while giving up only 12 and Louisville forced 21 and only gave up 12 as well. Special teams have been a strength for the Gators all season as they have relied on Ray Guy finalist Kyle Christy to repeatedly boot them out of bad field position or pin the opposition inside their twenty while the coverage team has been suffocating allowing very little return yardage all season. Expect Muschamp to again play it safe on third down particularly on the Gator side of the field knowing Christy can make life difficult for the Cardinals. The Gators likely have the advantage on special teams.
The two major keys in this game will be whether Louisville can stop the Gators potent running attack with Gillislee inside and Driskel on the outside, and how effective Teddy Bridgewater can be against the Gator defense. If the Gators are able to establish the run early they may be able to run away with this one. Louisville doesn’t have the depth on the defensive line to take the pounding they’ll face if they allow the Gators to move the ball early on the ground.
If Louisville is successful at shutting down the inside running game, they might have a shot forcing the Gators to have to rely on the passing game to win. Despite the reports the last two weeks, it still remains to be seen if the passing game has improved enough to be effective without a strong running game.
The play or effectiveness of Bridgewater may be the biggest key of the game. If he is able to continue his run of accurate passing and Louisville is able to control the football they may have the shot at the upset. If the Gator defense is able to throttle him as they have others such as Johnny Manziel, Tyler Bray, Aaron Murray, and E.J. Manuel, then Louisville will be ripe for the picking.
The game is set to kickoff shortly after 8 pm eastern time and will be the Gators first BCS game since playing in the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati after the 2009 season and will be Louisville’s first since playing in the Orange Bowl against Wake Forest after the 2006 season.