Injured QB Bridgewater steps up to lead Louisville past Rutgers to BCS
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Teddy Bridgewater showed up to the postgame press conference with his left arm in a cast, his left foot in a boot and tears welling in his eyes. It was never clear if they were from the emotion of a big win or from the pain shooting through his ankle.
Bridgewater spent a large dose of the game limping, but never gingerly. Whenever he was subbed out, his full leg buckled when he jogged to the sidelines.
So when time expired on Louisville's thrilling 20-17 win over Rutgers to wrap up a BCS berth, Bridgewater's pain dissolved, right?
"Oh no," Bridgewater said. "I definitely felt pain even after we won."
Maybe the taste of an orange, or perhaps some sugar, will ease the pain.
This was not a hobbled Bridgewater. The quarterback was playing on one functional ankle and had a broken left wrist. He didn't start the game -- that job belonged to heady backup Will Stein -- and never would have played had Louisville taken an early lead.
"When you're a competitor, you don't worry about pain," coach Charlie Strong said about Bridgewater.
Even if he could barely walk, Bridgewater still managed to maintain his usual efficiency -- finishing 20-of-28 for 263 yards, two touchdowns and one interception that wasn't his fault. The gritty quarterback rallied his team back from an 11-point deficit even though Louisville looked to be the better side all game.
"Coming into the game I had no idea how much I would be playing," Bridgewater said. "I was ready just because. We pretty much knew what I was able to do. I got a couple workouts throughout the week."
Several of his teammates don't even remember him taking a snap in practice this week.
No, this wasn't the final Big East football game to ever matter, but the Big East Jailbreak, the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, or simply, the de facto conference championship had a distinct feeling of closure.
In a wild game in the bitter cold of Highpoint Solutions Stadium, Louisville overcame a late 11-point deficit to stun the hometown Scarlet Knights and clinch one of the last meaningful Big East football games. Both Rutgers and Louisville have announced their intentions to leave the Big East -- Rutgers to the Big Ten, Louisville to the ACC -- after next season. And it provided enough highlights to satisfy any Big East homer reeling from realignment's negative externalities.
Rutgers entered the game ranked 92nd nationally in "long pass plays" of 20 yards or more, but it completed touchdown passes of 81 and 68 yards in the first half alone. Rutgers appeared to take a commanding 21-3 lead with a fake field goal that went for a touchdown -- but it was nullified by an ineligible receiver downfield. In the fourth quarter, two balls deflected off receivers' arms for momentum-swinging interceptions.
The Scarlet Knights relied on big plays to stay in the game while Charlie Strong's side relied on efficiency. The Cardinals didn't help themselves with two critical blown tackles, one by Calvin Pryor and the other by James Burgess, that led to Rutgers' two touchdowns, but the two culprits that missed those tackles forced the pivotal second-half turnovers that ultimately changed the course of the game.
"Defensively, we were able to make the right plays at the right time," Strong said. "Look at the key turnovers we were able to get. I was pleased with the way the defense was able to play."
The Cardinals had effectively moved the ball against a sturdy Rutgers defense most of the night, but had only managed three points before facing a third-and-12 from the Rutgers 14-yard line. That's when Bridgewater rose to the occasion. With the pocket collapsing on him and his three main receivers covered, Bridgewater found running back Jeremy Wright on a fluttering shovel pass which Wright took into the end zone.
On the next play, James Burgess, who whiffed on a tackle that led to Rutgers' second touchdown, cracked Rutgers' kick returner Jeremy Deering to force a fumble that Louisville recovered at the Rutgers 20. On the next play, Bridgewater floated a beautiful 20-yard fade to DeVante Parker to take the lead.
Late in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 17, Burgess added another big play to make up for his mistake by picking off a deflected pass and running it to the Louisville 32. Though the Cardinals committed a personal foul after the play, Bridgewater completed a 30-yard strike down the middle that would set up the game winning field goal with 1:41 remaining.
Rutgers got the ball as far as midfield in response, but a critical miscommunication between quarterback Gary Nova and target Jawan Jamison left Louisville's Terell Floyd alone to make the game-clinching interception with just over a minute remaining.
"All season long, this football team has been a very resilient football team. They have come back from a lot of times that we have been down," Strong said. "For us to go on the road and win the championship, it's so special. It's special for this program."
And how do the players feel? Do they prefer the Sugar or Orange Bowl?
"I don't care as long as it's a BCS game," Pryor said. "Whatever it is is better than going to the Belk Bowl!"