NEW ORLEANS -- They started the first half by throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown. They started the second with a failed onside kick that cost them six more points.
And over the course of their stunning 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night, the Florida Gators were further undone by bad defense, almost no offense and a rash of untimely penalties.
The Gators picked their final game to play their worst one.
“This is a sour day and a sour note,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said after watching the Gators fall completely apart against a Louisville team that was a 14-point underdog.
Teddy Bridgewater picked apart the Florida defense like no quarterback had done all season, tossing touchdown passes of 15 and 19 yards on his way to being named the game’s MVP. The first of those gave Louisville a 24-3 lead shortly before halftime. The second came on the first play after the Gators gambled — and failed — on an onside kick to start the second half.
To put those two plays into context, the Gators had not given up a scoring pass of 15 yards or longer all season. Bridgewater, a sophomore and Miami native who considered Florida and later turned down a commitment to the University of Miami before heading to Louisville, did it twice.
Bridgewater said the key was not trying to be a hero. In game films to study up on Florida’s defense, he said he often noticed quarterbacks trying to do too much and ending up in trouble as a result.
“I looked at what did and didn’t work for quarterbacks during the regular season,” Bridgewater said. “[Florida’s defense] faced guys forcing throws and things like that, trying to play with an ‘S’ on their chest. And coach tells me: ‘No capes on your back. No ‘S’ on your chest. Just take what the defense gives you.’ ”
Uf ‘out of whack’
Bridgewater completed 20 of 32 passes for 266 yards. More importantly, he kept Florida’s defense on the field by moving the chains, especially in the first half. Louisville converted on 9 of 14 third-down opportunities and didn’t punt until late in the fourth quarter. The Gators, on the other hand, didn’t convert their first third-down play until early in the fourth quarter.
“We struggled on third-down defense the entire game,” Muschamp said. “It got us out of whack a little bit.”
While Bridgewater was flourishing, his UF counterpart — Jeff Driskel — enjoyed no such success. Driskel threw a poor pass on the game’s first play that deflected off the outstretched hand of Andre Debose and into the waiting arms of Louisville cornerback Terell Floyd, who ran it back 38 yards for a touchdown.
Driskel went 16 of 29 with a pair of interceptions.
Louisville’s second play from scrimmage also provided a signature moment when Florida’s Jon Bostic popped Bridgewater with a hit so violent that it flattened the quarterback and took off his helmet. Bostic was called for roughing the passer, and Bridgewater recovered to direct a 12-play scoring drive that covered 83 yards and culminated in the game’s second touchdown.
Though injured at the time, Bridgewater came off the bench to lead Louisville to a Big East championship victory over Rutgers in December. He was properly healed for Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl showdown with the fourth-ranked Gators.
“What a competitor,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. “We saw it in the Rutgers game, and we saw it here again [Wednesday night] on the grand stage. He is, without a doubt, one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
But the game’s deciding moment might have come at the start of the second half when Florida, trailing by 14, decided to try an onside kick.
“We wanted to steal a possession at the start of the second half,” Muschamp said in explaining the decision. “We had struggled defensively in the first half and felt like you try to gain some momentum in the game.”
The gamble failed miserably.
Louisville not only recovered but also ended up with the ball at the Florida 19 because of a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the play. Bridgewater promptly took the ensuing snap and floated a pass into the end zone that was caught for a touchdown, and Louisville was on its way to the biggest upset of the bowl season.
Florida, which came within a Georgia loss of playing in the SEC Championship Game and a possible stab at the national title, instead finished 11-2 with a dumbfounding performance that left a stain on its season.
The Gators, as usual, will be losing several top players to the NFL. But enough are returning to justify a top-10 ranking — if not top 5 — to start the 2013 season.
By then, perhaps the bitter taste left from their Sugar Bowl debacle will be gone.