NEW ORLEANS -- After laboring all season to erase the memory of a dismal 7-6 campaign, Florida on Wednesday looked more like the team that finished last season in the Gator Bowl and not the one that earned a trip to its seventh BCS bowl in program history.
The No. 4 Gators (11-2) laid an egg in the Sugar Bowl, losing 33-23 to No. 22 Louisville (11-2) in a fashion that couldn’t help but feel familiar, even if it had been a while since Florida made as many mistakes as it did Wednesday. A dismal first half ended with a glimmer of hope as quarterback Jeff Driskel led a scoring drive as time was close to expiring to pull the Gators within 14 points at the break.
But that hope evaporated as quickly as it materialized when to start the second half coach Will Muschamp called for an onside kick, which failed miserably when Louisville recovered and Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy and reserve linebacker Chris Johnson both were called for unsportsmanlike conduct personal foul penalties. Johnson was ejected from the game for throwing a punch at a Louisville player, and both flags were enforced. Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw a touchdown pass of 19 yards to wide receiver Damian Copeland on the next play from scrimmage to extend the lead to 30-10.
It was the kind of series that epitomized Florida’s 2011 season and the kind that the team had mostly avoided while racking up 11 regular-season wins in 2012. But on Wednesday it all came crumbling back down.
The Gators were called for nine total penalties, surpassing their 114th-ranked average of 7.7 per game from 2011. There were all types of flags, including a sideline penalty called on UF’s bench for being too close to the field. They started early, with linebacker Jon Bostic flagged for roughing the passer on Bridgewater’s first attempt, and came often, until they had impacted the game in a way that was impossible to overcome.
Although Florida averaged more flags (eight per game, 118th) this season, they weren’t typically crushing. Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl game was a different story, however.
In addition to the unsportsmanlike calls that permanently shifted the momentum in Louisville’s favor, Florida picked up two flags in three plays while inside the red zone and driving to cut the Cardinals’ early two-touchdown advantage.
Instead of trimming the deficit to 14-7, the Gators had to settle for a field goal following an illegal formation penalty and a false start from Xavier Nixon.
It was that kind of miscue that hampered Florida all season in 2011, when the team finished 113th nationally in terms of scoring touchdowns inside the opponent’s 20 with a conversion percentage of just 48.65. That number improved just slightly to 52.38 in 2012.
Florida also struggled in turnover margin, the area that helped the team disguise its issues with penalties and converting scoring chances with a flip from minus-12 in 2011 to plus-17 in 2012. The Gators gave up a pick-six on the game’s first play and finished minus-2 on a night where nothing went their way.