Teddy Bridgewather threw his first pick since UL's game vs. Ohio, but still managed a win. (Garry Jones/AP)
LOUISVILLE – With 26 scouts in attendance from 20 NFL teams, not to mention one CFL scout (shout out Winnipeg Blue Bombers), junior Teddy Bridgewater had a chance to show he might be worthy of the number one pick in next year’s draft. And more importantly, No. 8 Louisville had a chance on national television to prove it is a legitimate BCS Championship contender this season.
Bridgewater and Louisville were far from perfect on offense with leading receiver DeVante Parker out due to a shoulder injury, but they did enough to stay undefeated in a game that never really felt as close as the score indicated, beating Rutgers 24-10 on Thursday night.
Normally a tough win over a conference rival should be cause for celebration. But fair or not, naysayers will point to this close result as a reason Louisville doesn’t belong in the national title conversation.
“Obviously you want to send a message nationally,” Louisville offensive lineman Jake Smith said. “Rutgers is a good team. They’ve beaten a lot of good opponents. I don’t think that game was ever out of control. We always had control throughout the game. We definitely sent that message. But there was more out there for us.”
Louisville doesn’t have a lot of opportunities this year to make its case with a light and unflattering schedule, and this was a very important Thursday night game on ESPN to start to change some minds.
Bridgewater proved why he is such an enticing talent to NFL teams on a lot of plays, showing good footwork, making throws deep in his progression and placing the ball right where his receivers needed it, whether it was dropping it down on a deep ball or getting it in catch-and-run situations.
On one particular play, a 20-yard completion to Damian Copeland, Bridgewater felt the rush coming, got out of the pocket, scrambled and set his feet before putting the ball in exactly the right spot to get Copeland a few more yards after the catch. In another instance, with just over 11 minutes left in the game on a third-and-nine, with a defender left unblocked, Bridgewater got rid of the ball just in time, throwing over the top with touch to Michaelee Harris for 33 yards.
The Louisville quarterback made some uncharacteristic mistakes, though. A couple throws were forced into coverage or sailed on him, and he threw his first interception since the second quarter of the Ohio game (a full 310 minutes and change of game action). Early in the fourth quarter, he took a big hit by Anthony Cioffi and lost a fumble deep in Rutgers territory. Those are plays that happen to every quarterback, but the expectations of the Louisville signal caller hold him to a higher standard.
“We left about 17 points on the field,” Bridgewater said. “We should have easily put up more than 40 points tonight. That’s how confident I am in our team, but we just have to come back and get better.”
Overall, Bridgewater finished the day 21-of-31 for 310 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
When you play the kind of schedule Louisville does, there might be an unfair burden placed on every result, and to some extent every play. Without an SEC or Pac-12 slate and a shot at a bunch of top 25 teams over the course of the year, the Cardinals are expected to play a perfect game every week to keep their lofty ranking.
“When I look at the polls I try not to pay much attention to it,” Louisville wide Damian Copeland, who had eight catches for 115 yards, said. “We can’t do nothing about our schedule.”
It matters little that Rutgers was two points from being undefeated coming into this game or that games between the Scarlet Knights and Cardinals are always a battle. If Bridgewater throws an interception, or Louisville only wins by 14, it’s unforgiveable. If the Cards get a field goal blocked, or the defense gives up a long fourth-down conversion on a fake field goal that leads to a touchdown, as it did with 2:01 left in the second quarter, analysts start to scrutinize.
No team plays a perfect game. Just ask any college coach in America.
Louisville can only face the teams it has penciled in from week to week. The players didn’t make the schedule. And thus far, the Cardinals have done just enough to warrant their high expectations and a top 10 ranking. They’re outscoring teams by a margin of 246-44 and the defense has really improved to keep pace with an already-powerful offense. The Cardinals had a season-high eight sacks, forced four interceptions and held Rutgers to 12 yards rushing.
“I think we’re worthy of our ranking,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said, “and I think we have a really good football team, and I’ll continue to say that. […] People are going to say what they’re going to say. The only thing we can control is how we play on the football field. We just gotta continue to play well.”
This game did little to change the fact Bridgewater should still be a high pick in the NFL Draft, although his Heisman Trophy hopes undoubtedly suffered, and Louisville is still on track to win the AAC barring a disaster.
The reality is the Cardinals are going to need some teams above them in the rankings to slip up to keep their national title hopes alive. Otherwise that schedule – the one thing Strong and Louisville don’t have any control over – could unfortunately be their undoing.