At the beginning of the season, Louisville fans expected to watch their beloved Cardinals battling it out in a BCS bowl for the second season in a row. Head coach Charlie Strong's program wasn't able to reach a BCS game, but Teddy Bridgewater and No. 18 Louisville looked like one of the country's more dominant teams anyway in Saturday's Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Cardinals thoroughly overwhelmed Miami -- an upcoming conference opponent of Louisville when it moves to the ACC next season -- for a 36-9 win in Orlando. Bridgewater was simply superb in what could have been his final game before departing for the NFL. The junior quarterback completed 35 of his 45 pass attempts for a career-high 447 yards along with four total touchdowns while the Cardinals' defense smothered Miami quarterback Stephen Morris and the Hurricanes' offense into only nine points, 14 rushing yards and 3.16 total yards per play.
In the first quarter it looked like Louisville might actually face a stiff 60-minute test in Orlando. A Miami punt forced the Cardinals to start their first drive of the game at the two-yard line. On Louisville's second play of the series, 'Canes' defensive back Deon Bush threw Bridgewater to the ground as Miami took a 2-0 lead on a safety.
But it was all Louisville after that miscue. Cardinals' kicker John Wallace hit three straight field goals and Bridgewater tossed two touchdowns to help Louisville jump out to a 22-2 halftime lead. The passer's second touchdown came on a drive that saw Bridgewater complete five straight passes, including a wild third-down toss while scrambling to Damian Copeland for a first down. Defensive end Marcus Smith and the Cardinals' defense did their job, as well, limiting Miami to 2.6 yards per play on offense in the first half, including 15 rushing yards on 17 carries.
The second half was much of the same. Bridgewater threw another touchdown pass and ran in another score before Miami scored its only touchdown on a two-yard rush by Gus Edwards with 10:23 to play. The rest of the evening was little more than a curtain call for Bridgewater.
Bridgewater told ESPN after the game that he'll talk with his family before deciding whether to enter the NFL draft, where many predict he'll become the No. 1 pick. But if this was indeed the end of his Louisville career, Bridgewater went out in style.
The quarterback was on point all night long against the Hurricanes just as he was in a rout of heavily favored Florida in last year's Sugar Bowl. A 38-35 loss to UCF in October kept Bridgewater out of the Heisman conversation just as it kept the Cardinals out of BCS contention, but Strong still managed to guide an often unheralded Louisville team to an impressive bowl victory in each of the last two seasons.
Whether Bridgewater returns to school or not, watching this Louisville team against an ACC schedule in 2014 will be interesting after the Cardinals were largely ignored due to their American Athletic Conference schedule. Louisville will conceivably have a better shot at a national championship as a member of the ACC alongside the implementation of the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014. That could be an interesting wrinkle in Bridgewater's upcoming decision.
Miami, on the other hand, turned a season of promise into a season of disappointment. The Hurricanes, postseason eligible once again, started the year 7-0 and climbed as high as No. 6 in the country. Then the wheels fell off for Miami, which lost three straight games to Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke. Starting tailback Duke Johnson suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the Seminoles, throwing a wrench in the 'Canes offense.
Coach Al Golden's team was 2-2 in his four games prior to Saturday's bowl and looked embarrassingly unprepared against a tough Louisville defense that came in ranked second nationally. Smith and the Cardinals sacked Morris (12-of-27, 160 yards) four times and kept the 'Canes from converting a single third down (0-11) on the night. Whatever the reason, Miami's high expectations in the first half of the season disappeared by the end of Saturday night's bowl. But for Bridgewater and Louisville, the Russell Athletic Bowl served as one of the best performances of the quarterback's career. Only time will tell if it's the last we'll see of the Cardinals' talented signal-caller before he takes his skills to Sundays.