Stories have been written and will continue to be written about the plucky effort exhibited by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to lead Louisville to a 20-17 win in High Point Stadium over Rutgers last night.
The glass half full angle is that the Cardinals earned a share of the Big East title, clinched a BCS bowl berth, and Bridgewater was the limping, impaired signal-caller suffering from a broken left wrist and sprained right ankle who prevailed in a gutsy effort.
The bigger story, though, is the glass half empty, another bungle on a big stage by Rutgers. Another opportunity graciously offered that fell by the wayside. (Louisville lost last Saturday to Connecticut, giving Rutgers another chance to win the Big East championship outright.) And yes, there was a turning point.
Rutgers commanded a 14-3 lead in the third quarter when head coach Kyle Flood called for a fake field goal on a fourth-and-9 on Louisville’s 26. The outcome initially was raucous joy from the over-52,000 Scarlet Knights’ faithful, as holder J.T. Tartacoff hit D.C. Jefferson for what appeared to be a passing touchdown.
But Jefferson was ruled an illegal player downfield, the touchdown was called back, and Justin Doerner punted, pinning Louisville at their own 10.
The game was never the same.
Great athletes recognize when they are given second chances, and Bridgewater is as great a player as fans will see in the BigEast/BigTen/ACC. He led the Cardinals on a 14 play, 90-yard drive that ended with him tossing a shovel pass to Jeremy Wright on a third-and-12. Wright scampered through the dead space in the Rutgers defense for a 14-yard touchdown. The scoring play was Bridgewater’s second conversion on the drive of a third-and-12.
On the ensuing kickoff, Rutgers’ returner Jeremy Deering fumbled after Cardinals’ linebacker James Burgess jostled the ball loose and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor recovered. Louisville took over on the Rutgers’ 20-yard line, and on the first play Bridgewater threw a rainbow corner pass to DeVante Parker who beat the Knights’ best shutdown corner, Logan Ryan, on a hitch-and-go route. Louisville was now up 17-14, and only 33 ticks were left in the third quarter. The stadium, and Rutgers sideline, seemed stunned.
“It was a 21-point swing in a very short amount of time,” Flood said during the postgame press conference. “We were never really able to swing the momentum back, and that’s my job. So I take responsibility for that.”
Rutgers would counter with a field goal to tie the game at 17 -17, and got the ball back with 4:39 left in the final quarter and a chance to take the lead. But Thursday night was not Rutgers’ senior Tim Wright’s day, and his second drop proved to be the most costly of the two golden scoring opportunities to pass through his fingers (and calf).
The first came in the fourth quarter when Nova hit Wright in stride on a deep post, but Wright could not come down with the ball. With under five minutes remaining and the scored tied at 17, Nova hit Wright with a chance for a first-down on a third-and-8, but it hit Wright in the hands and bounced off his calf into Burgess’ (yes, the aforementioned Burgess) hands.
The Cardinals came into the game beleaguered by two consecutive losses, but at that moment they looked revitalized, knowing victory was theirs to seize. They managed the clock and positioned themselves, seeming much more like the very successful team that had won nine straight before their two defeats. Louisville’s John Wallace proceeded to knock through a 29-yard field goal to put the Cardinals ahead 20-17.
Rutgers got the ball back with the chance to run the two-minute drill and push the game into overtime with a field goal. The Scarlet Knights moved the ball to their own 48 after Jawan Jamison picked up 14 yards on a third-and-6. But a bad miscommunication on the last play had Nova throwing the stretch vertical pass and Brandon Coleman running an out pattern. The Cardinals’ Terrell Floyd hunted down the wayward pigskin and snagged the ball before it hit the turf… and that was all she wrote.
The locker room was somber after the game, with Flood coming up to players and giving them heartfelt bear hugs and thanking them for their effort. Nova accepted blame for the disconnect between him and Coleman, and Coleman expressed that, although he was hurting for all the seniors (especially Wright), this team will stay together.
Rutgers’ two near length-of-the-field touchdown plays were indicative of the most telling statistic of the game: Louisville time of possession 42:11; Rutgers’ 17:49.
Upon first viewing, it would seem that some of the play calls by Flood and Dave Brock might have been influenced by Greg Schiano and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ coordinator Mike Sullivan, especially since there has been a reported dialogue between Flood and Schiano recently.
Coleman was the recipient of the first touchdown of the game, a deep post that Nova delivered perfectly in stride. Sullivan dials up those long passes to stretch the field for his rangy, athletic wide receivers (Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams) all the time, and the similarities seemed genuine.
When Harrison utilized his height and athleticism for a 68-yard touchdown (5 receptions, 131 yards) to put the Scarlet Knights up 14-3, it seemed like maybe a dormant offense had been resurrected.
But, ironically, in Rutgers’ following possessions they were unable to reach the red zone and it became clear they were relying too heavily on quick strikes. They ended up looking more like the New York Giants at their worst, rather than the Bucs at their best. They were a threat for the big, explosive play, but unable to consistently manufacture sustaining long drives. The Cardinals finished with 22 first downs to Rutgers’ nine. Rutgers mustered only 54 yards rushing against Louisville.
Rutgers’ loss last night will unquestionably have the seismic fiscal and recruiting ripple effects that occur when a team is possibly playing in a BCS bowl with national exposure and high-revenue stream, but (likely) will end up playing in the Russell Athletic Bowl. In the locker room after the game, it was evident this was a seriously wounded team, a team that knew it let something special fall out of its grasp.
“Unfortunately we didn’t do it well enough,” said Flood of the game and his players. “But the effort and the emotion that was poured into that game – right now their hearts are ripped out.”
C’est la guerre.