NEW ORLEANS — We can go back and forth about the pros and cons of the college football bowl system, but one of the quirks that makes the 35-game holiday football festival so unique is that 35 teams get to end the season on a high.
Which means the other 35 go out on a low.
And so it was for the 2012 Florida Gators, who five weeks ago bused home from Tallahassee after an 11-1 regular season, capped by a thorough beat-down of their arch rival and berth in a BCS bowl.
Will Muschamp’s second team authored a great story of recovery and redemption.
Then came Wednesday in the Sugar Bowl, where Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the No. 21 Cardinals put a different ending on Florida’s feel-good tale. Bridgewater bedazzled the No. 4 Gators while dazzled the Superdome crowd with 266 yards passing and a pair of touchdown throws in a 33-23 upset victory that marked the greatest moment in the UL program’s middling football history.
“It just wasn’t our night,” junior tight end Jordan Reed said. “Sometimes this stuff happens.”
Plenty happened, all right. For the Gators, much of it was bad, much of it quickly and at the worst possible times.
“Got out-coached and outplayed,” Muschamp said. “That’s what I told our team. That’s the bottom line.”
But Muschamp clearly wanted to knock down any notion the team’s first bowl defeat in five years should taint the gains the program made over the previous five months, in bouncing back from a 7-6 season in 2011 — the most losses by a UF team since 1987 — to become just the sixth team in school history to win at least 11 games.
He was hoping, though, to be the sixth to claim at least 12 wins.
“We’re building something here. We’re building a program. It was an unfortunate setback, [but] it’s one game,” Muschamp said. “We still did a lot of very positive things, in my opinion, this season. Obviously, this is a sour day and a sour note and I apologize to our fans and the university, but we’ve had a great year and we’re moving forward at a rapid pace.”
No one would have argued those points before the game, but as rapid as the Gators (11-2) were moving forward before the 79th Sugar Bowl they just as quickly undermined themselves in the game with huge steps backward to start both halves against the underdog Cardinals (11-2), champions of the ridiculed Big East Conference (and bound for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014).
“We’ve come back a lot this season,” junior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. “But playing catch-up against a difficult outfit like Louisville, that was going to be tough.”
Especially when in shell-shock mode.
The Gators received the opening kickoff and on the first play from scrimmage sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel threw behind his intended receiver in the flat. The ball caromed off the hands of UF wideout Andre Debose and into the hands of Cards cornerback Terrell Floyd, who scored untouched on a 38-yard interception return.
It was 7-0 Louisville 15 seconds in.
“You still have the whole game to play,” Driskel said.
True. UF, though, went three-and-out on its second possession, with tailback Mike Gillislee dropping a perfectly thrown third-down pass that would have moved the chains.
The Cardinals took over at their 17 and promptly marched 83 yards in 12 plays, as Bridgewater converted a pair of third downs along the way, and scored on a 1-yard run by Jeremy Wright to make it 14-0 barely seven minutes into the game. Like that, the joint was jumping in favor of Louisville, whose fans probably outnumbered Gator fans 4-to-1.
In rhythm and ripping the UF secondary, Bridgewater was on his way to hitting 20 of 32 for the night, staking the Cards to a 24-3 lead before the Gators scored on a Matt Jones 1-yard run — out of broken fake field goal formation — with 10 seconds go in the half to make it a 14-point lead.
The touchdown gave Florida a smidgeon of momentum heading into the locker room, so the start of the second half was going to be key.
The Gators gambled on an onsides kick to open the third quarter. Not only did it bounce right to a Cardinal inside midfield, but two UF players were flagged for dead-ball personal fouls after the play.
That was 30 more yards.
Louisville started the second half with a first down at UF’s 19 and on the Cards’ first snap Bridgewater hit Damian Copeland for a 19-yard touchdown pass to make it 30-10.
That took eight seconds — two fewer than the disastrous start to the first half.
“We had plenty of opportunities to get back into the football game,” Muschamp said. “We didn’t do it.”
Louisville, a 7-6 team in the previous two years, did it all night long, much to the delight of its red-clad fan base.
“To change the culture of a program, our fans are going to have to change it,” said Cards coach Charlie Strong, who served as UF’s defensive coordinator for two national championship teams under Urban Meyer. “This evening [the fans] took that step, just like we took a step where we go and beat the No. 3 [BCS] team in the country and go and win and make a statement for next season.”
Strong and his players left the dome feeling like world-beaters. Good for them.
“They came out and dominated,” UF senior safety Josh Evans said. “No excuses. They were the better team.”
And they earned the right to feel great about themselves heading into the New Orleans night.
For the Gators, it’ll take a few days to get over the sting, but it too shall pass. One game does not a season make; even a last game on a really big stage.
“At the end of the day, the Gators are going to be the Gators,” said junior defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who afterward announced his plans to head for the NFL. “This program will get it right by going out and attacking another season … like we did last year.”