By Noah Allison–
In many ways, the 20-17 Louisville football team’s victory at Rutgers Thursday night, embodied the season the Cardinal’s have had this year. And the overly rewarding result of the battle in Piscataway, N.J., would leave no critic wondering as to the definition of Cardinal Strong.
The Cardinals earned themselves a share of the Big East title, and more importantly, the second visit to a Bowl Championship Series game in school history. The game at Rutgers was the seventh game of the season to be decided by one score, the Cardinals proved that they had been there and done that, and that down at Rutgers has not nearly been the first bit of adversity this team has faced and conquered throughout the season.
“All season long, this football team has been a very resilient football team,” Head Coach Charlie Strong said after the game. “They have come back from a lot of times that we have been down. You look at the first half of this game; we were down 14-3. We talked about this, even before the game started. I said, `We are going to make plays and they are going to make plays, but it is one play at a time.’ Even if we do give up big plays, let’s make sure that we keep our head into the game and we stay focused. Let’s make sure we concentrate. That’s what this team was able to do this evening.”
In the prior game’s loss to the University of Connecticut, sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a broken left wrist and injured his ankle. Senior Will Stein was named the starter and prepared as such throughout the short week of practice. Stein started and the whole first quarter that he played was a virtual stalemate, with exception of one missed tackle on defense that turned into an 85-yard touchdown that put Rutgers up 7-0 early.
“We didn’t know how much Teddy was going to play. But we figured at the start of the game that Stein was there and he was functional, which he was,” Strong said. “Two years ago, he was the quarterback and he was able to come in after (Justin) Burke got knocked out of the game. We were going to play Stein the whole game if we had to.”
Teddy Bridgewater was out on the field at the beginning of the second quarter and played primarily the rest of the game, with situational appearances from Stein. Bridgewater was 20 of 28 passing for 263 yards and two touchdowns. Stein was 8-11 passing for 59 yards and ran seven times for 19 yards, and he was a huge contributor in converting third downs throughout the game.
“It was just doing my job, when my number’s called upon all I can do is go out there and be the best player I can be and to help the team any way I can,” Stein said. “I was just told to manage the game, don’t play out of my element, and just take what the defense gives me and I think that’s what I did. On those run-pass options I often saw a lot of green grass so I just took it upon myself to go ahead and get those first downs.”
In the second quarter the defense made their second bad play of the game when another missed tackle turned into a 65-yard touchdown. Beyond those two big plays the Cardinals defense only gave up 134 passing yards, 54 rushing yards and nine first downs. They also forced two interceptions on Rutgers’ last two possessions of the game to seal the victory.
“(At half-time) I didn’t beat us up. I said, we have one game. We have 30 minutes of football left. We have not played well. We’ve given up two big plays on defense. Offensively, we’re not blocking and we can’t run the ball. We’re not protecting the quarterback. Just protect Teddy and give us a chance to throw the ball.’ We had 30 minutes of football left. We’ve been in this situation before. Last week, we were down 10-0. We were only down 11 points (today). We’ve been down 14 points. (I told them) to keep fighting, keep battling and someone is going to make a play sooner or later,” Strong said.
The Cardinals gritted it out through the second half until the last minute of the third quarter. An almost entirely immobile Teddy Bridgewater scrambled on third and 12 in the red zone and shovel passed it to Jeremy Wright who took it in for a 14-yard touchdown and cut the deficit 14-10. On the ensuing kick off, sophomore Terell Floyd forced a fumble that was recovered by Louisville. On the Cardinals’ first play of the new possession, Bridgewater threw up a prayer into double coverage only to see the 6-foot-3 sophomore Devante Parker come down with his ninth touchdown catch of the year. In 16 seconds the Cardinals had gone from down 14-3, to leading 17-14.
Bridgewater, playing without an arm and a leg, kept his team alive and expressed his maturity through tough times. Making key third and long completions to trusted receivers Eli Rogers, Andrell Smith and Damian Copeland, the offense found itself making up for mistakes, and capitalizing on Rutgers mistakes, making the difference.
Running back Corvin Lamb led the Cardinals in rushing with 40 yards on six attempts, but starting running back Jeremy Wright carried the load and took a lot of hits away from Bridgewater. He rushed the ball 22 times for 33 yards and protected the backfield.
True freshman James Burgess got the interception that led to red-shirt freshman kicker John Wallace knocking in the lead-changing field goal with just under two minutes to play.
Early into Rutgers’ last drive, a miscommunication between Rutgers QB Gary Nova and his receiver gave Floyd a second opportunity to make a play, and he did by catching the game-winning interception and his second pivotal turnover of the game.
Teddy Bridgewater, with his frail wrist, watched as Stein took the snaps and kneeled this Cardinal team into U of L history. The game was nerve wrecking; it was worthy of a championship game and it came down to U of L doing what they have done all year long: finding a way to win.
“For us to go on the road and win the championship, it’s so special. It’s special for this program. It’s special for the university. It’s special for our fans and for the city of Louisville. It’s just special. I’m just so happy for us to get to a 10-win season, go win us a conference title and get us to a BCS bowl,” Strong said.
Photo: Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal