Adversity is unavoidable, yet not insurmountable. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and his Louisville Cardinals faced adversity from the first breath of this season. Bridgewater took his first snap of the 2012-13 season from under the shadow of his own end zone, on the one-yard line staring across at the UK defense. As he would all year long, Bridgewater calmly and collectedly drove the offense down the field, 99 yards later the Cardinals had their first touchdown of the season. That was the first of many times throughout the season that head coach Charlie Strong’s team proved adversity could indeed be surmounted.
The Cardinals entered the season with expectations, picked as the preseason favorite in the Big East with a top 25 ranking. A team made up of mostly sophomores and juniors were led out on the field by a core group of eight lone seniors on the two-deep depth chart. This was a senior group that came to Louisville with the vision of conference championships and BCS bowls, but did not begin to taste success until their sophomore years in 2010, upon Strong’s arrival.
In multiple games throughout the season, the Cardinals not only faced their opponents, but battled the elements as well. With a downpour before the UK game, and during the FIU, Southern Miss, and Cincinnati games, the Cards were well accustomed to the rain. Their undefeated record in the rain could be attributed to Wet-Ball Wednesdays, where centers, quarterbacks and running backs practiced handling balls that were dunked in water.
A young growing team, troublesome weather and the proverbial “big game” opponent for all the teams on the schedule led to the Cardinals being the only team in the FBS to win five games by five points or less. Card Nation once again bore witness to the “Cardiac Cards,” a team that played to the last second, always knowing that there is a chance to win. What started as a team that looked like they couldn’t finish a game, transitioned to a team that was never uncomfortable playing from behind. The defense knew they just needed to keep it close and come up with a few big stops for Bridgewater to get the ball in his hands one last time and control the fate of the game.
Bridgewater could not walk on the field without the resonating chants of “Teddy, Teddy!” echoing throughout the stadium. As much as football is the ultimate team sport, there is no other position in sport that demands unquestioned leadership like that of the quarterback. And there is no team in the country with a more defined leader than the Cardinals. Bridgewater’s quiet strength, good character and professional work ethic set the tone that the rest of the team would follow. The Big East offensive player of the year finished the season with a 68.5 completion percentage, 3,718 passing yards and 27 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. He had five receivers with at least 30 receptions and threw a touchdown passes to ten different receivers.
It could be said the team could not win without Bridgewater, and no person understood this more than him. In the season finale against Rutgers, with the conference championship and BCS bid on the line, Bridgewater had a gutsy performance with a broken wrist and sprained ankle. Unable to take snaps under center and decreased mobility, a hobbled Bridgewater led Louisville to an emotional 20-17 victory after being down 14-3 at halftime. It was the type of performance many players would base their careers around, but for Bridgewater, it was just another game where he had to go out and get the job done for his team.
Heading into the season, for all the hopes, dreams and expectations that the Cardinals and Card Nation had, nobody could have imagined just how sweet the ending would be. Charlie Strong’s former Florida team was an SEC school that was a game away from being in the National Championship. The nation’s number three team had the top pass defense in the country, and were definitely closer to cocky than confident in their ability to blow us out. Very few people gave Louisville a chance to win, maybe the only ones who actually believed were the team and the faithful Card Nation who outnumbered Florida fans 3 to 1 in New Orleans. The team gave its best performance of the season, and dominated the Gators from the first play of scrimmage; with an interception return for a touchdown on the first play of the game and a touchdown pass on the first play of the second half.
U of L stayed calm and reserved until the final victory kneel-down. Bridgewater won the game’s MVP award, while Strong gave the game ball to the 25,000 fans that travelled down to the Superdome. All year long Louisville football was about resilience and belief. Both the team and the fans had to keep those two things in their hearts during all 11 wins, and both of the painful losses. For next year, the sky is the limit, but for now Louisville can bathe in the bliss of the biggest BCS Bowl upset ever and one of the most memorable seasons in the history of the program.
The program now enters into uncharted waters; never before has it retained a coach after consecutive successful seasons. Louisville football had always been a stepping-stone to bigger programs, but Strong and athletic director Tom Jurich rewrote the script this year. Strong’s name circulated among many SEC job openings, but he stayed true to the program that gave him his first head coaching position.
“When I thought about leaving, I kept going back. We haven’t finished the job yet. My enthusiasm and heart are with the University of Louisville,” Strong said. “I just know this: This is a team that can handle adversity. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been able to grow, and once you grow from adversity, it just makes you stronger. That’s what this football team has done. It’s grown so much.”
Photo: Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal