NEW ORLEANS — Muhammad Ali couldn’t have delivered a better opening punch.
And Teddy Bridgewater along with the rest of the Louisville Cardinals proved more than capable of finishing.
With the former heavyweight champion looking on, his hometown school scored the greatest victory in its football history Wednesday, stunning fourth-ranked Florida 33-23, in the 79th Allstate Sugar Bowl in a 2/3-filled Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I don’t even feel like I’m here right now,” Louisville senior center Mario Benavides said. “It’s so unreal.”
It certainly must feel that way to the Gators as well. They were only a 17-9 loss to Georgia away from playing Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship game with a trip to the BCS title game on the line.
Now they have to deal with their first bowl loss since the 2007 season, one against a team with 34 players from the Sunshine State, including three who were transfers from Florida.
But this night belonged to Louisville from start to finish.
Terrell Floyd’s 38-yard interception return for a touchdown on the game’s first play from scrimmage provided an early stunning blow for the Cardinals, and Florida never fully recovered.
It was 14-0 after Louisville’s first offensive possession and the Gators could get no closer than the 10-point final margin of victory.
Marcus Smith’s sack of Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel on a two-point conversion attempt with 2:13 left prevented Florida from making it a one-possession game.
“We proved we could do it,” Louisville defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin said. “There was never any doubt.
There was coming in.
At No. 22, Louisville was the lowest-ranked team in the Sugar Bowl in 22 years. The Cardinals were in a BCS bowl only because they earned the next-to-last automatic berth that goes to the Big East champion, a league the school is leaving after next season for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And as a 13-point underdog, the Cardinals were the biggest upset winner in Sugar Bowl history.
“Ninety percent of the people thought we didn’t belong,” Cardinals senior center Mario Benavides said. “My mom and dad were in the 10 percent.
“We had to be at our best — and we were. We knew they were talented, but we had talented too. It came down to execution.”
For third-year Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who spent 15 years as a Florida assistant before finally getting his opportunity to be head coach three years ago, it was justification for the faith put in him by Athletic Director Tom Jurich, which Strong returned by turning down an opportunity to take the job at Tennessee the week after the Cardinals had claimed the conference title.
“This was for the 25,000 Louisville fans who made the trip down here,” Strong said. “We have a school, a community and team that’s behind us 100 percent.
“But we’ve still got a long ways to go.”
Maybe not as far as Strong said though.
This game was no fluke.
Florida coach Will Muschamp had called the notion that his team might not be at its best against a supposedly inferior opponent — as the Gators had tended to be during the season — “hogwash.”
“We still had a great year,” Muschamp said. “We’re building something here and this was just one game.
“Tonight though, we got outcoached and outplayed.
Louisville (11-2) matched the supposedly superior Gators (11-2) in physicality and speed. The Cardinals were certainly more poised as Florida was flagged for 93 yards in penalties with another declined because Louisville scored on the play.
But most of all, Louisville had Bridgewater, a sophomore from Miami who was willing to play receiver for the Gators, but wasn’t offered a scholarship and nearly committed to LSU but backed off when the Tigers pursued Zach Mettenberger.
After completing 10 of his first 11 attempts, Bridgewater finished 20 of 32 for 266 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Buying time to avoid the Florida rush, Bridgewater, the Big East’s Offensive Player of the Year, consistently found open targets against the nation’s No. 1 pass defense.
The rest of the game belonged to the Louisville defense, which kept the Gators in check until the lead was comfortable enough that a fourth-quarter rally could only get Florida to within 10.
Florida wound up with 286 yards, 97 of them coming on the late drive that pulled the Gators within 10.
Before that, so desperate were the Gators that they started the second half with an onsides kick attempt.
Not only did the Cardinals recover, but two personal fouls against Florida on the play let Louisville start at the 19.
Bridgewater connected with Damon Copeland in the end zone on the next play and Louisville had a 30-10 lead 12 seconds into the half.
A sack and fumble to start Florida’s next series recovered by the Cardinals at the 4 threatened to turn the game into a total rout, but Louisville couldn’t punch it in and missed a field goal. Another field goal attempt later in the quarter was blocked after an illegal block call negated a made one, leaving Florida still within range of a comeback entering the final quarter.
The Cardinals’ Andrew Johnson seemingly ended that slim possibility with an end zone interception with 13:21 left and John Wallace’s 30-yard field goal with left made it 33-10.
But Andre Dubose returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and, after forcing Louisville’s first punt of the night, albeit to the Florida 3, the Gators went the distance, capped by Driskel’s 2-yard TD pass to Kent Taylor with 2:13 left.
A two-point conversion would have made it a one-possession game but Smith’s sack sealed it for the Cardinals.
Florida’s first touchdown came with the Gators facing fourth-and-goal at the 1. UF spread four linemen to the left side, keeping only two lineman and a center in front of Driskel
Driskel then handed to freshman Matt Jones who made it into the end zone to complete a 75-yard drive.
But that still left the Gators with a 14-point halftime deficit.
Before that, just about everything had been in Louisville’s favor — starting with Floyd’s pick six, which saw Driskel’s pass to Andre DuBose go off Dubose’s arm and directly to Floyd, who had a clear path to the end zone.
“I can’t lie. I was in the right place at the right time,” Floyd said.
The defensive score to begin the Sugar Bowl gave the Cardinals the lead just 15 seconds into the game and momentum that manifested itself after the kickoff when the Gators went three-and-out.
Bridgewater then engineered a 12-play that featured a 25-yard completion to Eli Rogers on third-and-14 from the Cardinals’ 28, a 12-yard scramble by Bridgewater on third-and-10 from the Gators 47 and a screen pass to D.J. Butler, a backup defensive end who lined up at fullback and went from the 24 to the Gators 1.
Jeremy Wright scored on the next play and the Cardinals were up 14-0 before Florida had a first down.
Florida did get things going on its next possession with Driskel’s passing (2-2, 27 yards) and running (3 carries, 19 yards), getting the Gators into scoring position at the 19.
But there the lack of discipline that would plague the Gators all night first manifested itself.
An illegal formation call erased what would have been a gain to the 4 and a false start two plays later pushed the ball back to the 16.
The Gators had to settle for a field goal.
Louisville got those points back on Wallace’s 27-yard field goal.