Four Downs: Louisville makes statement in bowl win over Miami

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater accounted for four total touchdowns in a 36-9 win over the Miami Hurricanes on Saturday night.

Rob Foldy/Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

The Louisville Cardinals dominated a future ACC opponent, the Miami Hurricanes, in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Saturday night, running up a 36-9 score behind the aerial efforts of junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Here are four observations from the one-sided affair in Orlando:

For the second-consecutive season, Charlie Strong’s program finishes with double-digit wins on its resume after taking down a traditional national power from the Sunshine State. It was the Florida Gators who fell victim to the Cardinals in last year’s Sugar Bowl, but this time around it was the Miami Hurricanes, Louisville’s ACC brethren starting in 2014, who fell — and fell hard.

Barring a safety on Louisville’s opening possession, handing the Hurricanes an early 2-0 lead, Miami never stood a chance in Orlando. Louisville outclassed Al Golden’s team in every phase of the game, going on a 36-0 run and finishing with a 300-plus yard advantage in the total yards department.

When it was all said and done, Strong improved to 37-16 career as a head coach and his program made a definitive statement: the ACC has a new power to deal with, one that has shown the ability to get it done on both sides of the ball. Despite the significant losses looming — none bigger than Bridgewater’s expected early entry into the 2014 NFL Draft — this season’s Cardinals team finished No. 3 nationally in scoring defense and No. 28 nationally in scoring offense.

The ACC’s past two waves of expansion yielded just one conference power to date (Virginia Tech) — Miami has yet to win a league title, Boston College was never expected to take over and the jury is still out on 2013 newcomers Syracuse and Pittsburgh — but it looks like it is getting a good one from Kentucky. Led by Bridgewater, the Cardinals were a BCS-worthy team in back-to-back seasons (there is sufficient evidence to back up the claim that Louisville was better than UCF, the AAC conference champ playing in the Fiesta Bowl). Not too many programs can say the same.

As long as Charlie Strong sticks around this offseason, Louisville is poised to immediately affect the ACC power structure next year.

There was a moment on Saturday night when Bridgewater looked like the Heisman frontrunner many projected him to be in the preseason. In fact, there were many such moments. But this one in particular — a two-minute drill to conclude the first half with the Cardinals holding on to a 16-2 lead — was special, an NFL-caliber display that will show up on film at the draft should he declare himself eligible.

Following a first down incompletion, the 6-foot-3 signal-caller found Robert Clark for four yards. He then submitted his night’s top highlight, a back-and-forth scrambling effort that bought him enough time to drop a perfect touch pass into receiver Damian Copeland’s hands 21 yards away. Then another quick strike for seven yards. Then a bullet down the seam to DeVante Parker. Finally, the scoring play, a perfect toss to Michaelee Harris in the corner of the end zone (GIF via SBNation).

Miami was finished.

Bridgewater threw for a career-high 447 yards in the game, logging four total touchdowns and missing his mark on just 10 of his 45 pass attempts. His family members took pictures and danced in the stands of the Citrus Bowl, for good reason. His final junior season statistics: 3,970 yards, 32 total touchdowns, four interceptions. The loss to UCF derailed his campaign, but in terms of the final 2013 class of Heisman finalists, Bridgewater’s post-bowl numbers would have fit right in, especially given Jordan Lynch’s late-season struggles.

And now, he’s likely on his way out.

After allowing him to set his career record for passing yards, Strong’s staff pulled its star QB on the final drive to chants of "Teddy, Teddy, Teddy." And in his postgame interview, he all but announced his decision:

"What a way to go out, against my hometown school."

A bowl beatdown is not the way any school wants to conclude its season, but Miami had plenty to cheer about in 2013 — and, perhaps, plenty to look forward to.

The NCAA sanctions are now lifted. Head coach Al Golden, who was hired amidst the sanction-filled firestorm back in 2010, has improved the program’s record in every season he’s been on campus. The incoming recruiting class is projected in the top-10 nationally, holding onto the No. 6-rated running back (Joseph Yearby), No. 4 offensive tackle (K.C. McDermott) and No. 3 defensive end (Chad Thomas), among others.

The Hurricanes keep on building, and though the entrance of the Cardinals into the league will only make capturing a league title and getting to a highly-regard bowl — not to mention the new four-team playoff format — that much more difficult, there is room for optimism.

Outside of senior starting quarterback Stephen Morris, many of the top playmakers from an offense that averaged 35-plus points during the regular season should be back on campus in 2014, as well as young defensive standouts Tyriq McCord, Rayshawn Jenkins and Tracy Howard. The logical next step: a 10-win season.

With Duke Johnson sitting out with a season-ending injury to his right tibia, Louisville’s job on the defensive end was not as daunting as it could have been. Still, shutting down a nine-win ACC team on the ground serves as yet another notch on the belt for the country’s second-ranked rush defense, one that limited opponents to 80.69 yards per game on the ground this season.

Sure, the weak and pass-dependent AAC schedule helped — the conference featured just one top-75 rush offense (Cincinnati) — but the Hurricanes still brought plenty of backfield talent with Dallas Crawford and Gus Edwards … and they were held to 14 total yards on the ground. Excluding sacks, which left Morris with -59 yards rushing on the game, Miami was held to 73 yards rushing.

If Stanford rushes for 80 or more yards on Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, Louisville will finish the year as the nation’s No. 1-ranked rush defense.