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December 26, 2012

Football: How sweet it is

U of L happy to be in Sugar Bowl. Can they pull off the upset?

Nice that Louisville is headed to New Orleans to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl. It’s a credit to a team comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores, and a real feather in the cap of coach Charlie Strong, who inherited a losing team when he began at U of L, and three years later is poised to play in one of college football’s most famous bowls (Jan 2, 8:30 p.m., ESPN).

But can the No. 22 Cards actually win?

Looks like a daunting task. Florida (11-1) is ranked fourth, just behind No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State. Florida has won two national titles in the past decade (both with Strong as an assistant coach) and is stacked with top players again this year.

Louisville? Well, maybe the Cards should just be happy to be there.

A guest guru on a Louisville radio talk show predicted Florida would win, but Louisville would surprise everyone by making it close. But a minute after stroking the locals he was hawking bowl picks for $49.95.

In fact, Louisville is a 13½ point betting underdog, and most “experts” expect Florida can name its number. Outsiders might expect Louisville fans would be hoping for a close score and something of a moral victory.

But moral victories are for some other school. Louisville’s record in big bowls isn’t long, but it is perfect: two victories, no defeats.

That’s not what you heard? You heard Louisville is 1-0 in BCS bowls? That the Cards defeated Wake Forest 24-13 in the 2007 Orange Bowl.

Au contraire. That robotically repeated stat overlooks Louisville’s 1991 Fiesta Bowl romp over Alabama — before the Bowl Championship Series monopoly was created. In those days, there were five kingpin New Year’s Day bowls: Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton and Fiesta, and Louisville did fell favored Alabama 34-7 on New Year’s Day 1991 in the Fiesta Bowl.

How did they do it? Maybe the same way this bunch could take down Florida — through the air. Quarterback Browning Nagle aired out two long touchdown bombs, plus a Ralph Dawkins TD run, before Alabama even knew what hit ’em. Then Ray Buchanan recovered a blocked Bama punt for a touchdown, and it was 25-0 in the first quarter!

At least two of those winning ingredients will be present for Louisville in New Orleans: 1) The element of surprise. Florida coaches will warn their players not to take Louisville lightly, but the Alligators probably won’t listen. 2) Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

How great Bridgewater may eventually become remains to be seen. But he’s already brilliant, poised, understands the game, and is hickory tough.

At the end of an eventual overtime loss to Connecticut, Bridgewater led a comeback with a broken wrist and sprained ankle. His left hand useless, Bridgewater took snaps one-handed, catching the hikes in his throwing hand, cradling the ball with his bandaged hand to get a grip, then throwing with a pack of Huskies growling down on him. Bridgewater might miss one pass badly, then lay the next one in perfectly. Every so often Strong would sub quarterback Will Stein for Bridgewater, using Stein like a relief pitcher. It’s a team game.

A week later, still busted up, Bridgewater led Louisville to a come-from-behind victory over Rutgers to a Big East championship and an eventual Sugar Bowl berth.

You can’t discount that stuff. Not just from Bridgewater, but also his teammates. They’re all young, make mistakes, often get slaughtered in the line, and sometimes look foolish on pass defense. But they play great at the end of games, kick field goals, dive for passes, and finished 10-2.

Louisville hasn’t played anybody like Florida. The Gators have every kind of athlete they need and will outman Louisville on the line. Louisville didn’t display any nifty trick plays during the season, and the coach doesn’t have a viable play for “going for it” on fourth down.

But personnel match-ups and coaching Xs and Os won’t be how Louisville could win, says Jim Knoer, a knowledgeable fan. “Louisville might be able to beat them not because they’re stronger or better, but because of the way they play for Charlie Strong,” Knoer says. “Teddy Bridgewater shouldn’t have played that game. Broken wrist, hobbling on one leg. But he got out there, I think, because of the respect he has for Strong.

“That’s the difference with Strong and somebody like (former coach) Bobby Petrino,” Knoer adds. “Bridgewater could have never felt that for a guy that every year was looking for a different job … Somewhere along the line it changes from respect into, well, I’m not going to call it love. But all the great generals have it.”

Maybe this general will find a way.

Probably won’t happen. You wouldn’t want to pass up a favorite to jump in with such an illogical underdog. Would be like imagining Louisville could beat Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.

 

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