The starting quarterback with the most wins at FIU Stadium — Saturday’s site of the matchup between FIU and Louisville — will be wearing Cardinal red, not Panther blue.
You could have won a lot of money two years ago if you bet that the first college game he would start in Miami would be at FIU Stadium rather than Sun Life Stadium, where the crosstown Hurricanes play.
Otherwise, sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been everything recruiters thought he would be coming out of Northwestern High. He has just been doing it as a Cardinal instead of a Hurricane.
FIU coach Mario Cristobal called Bridgewater, “the best quarterback we’ve seen on tape in a long, long time. That’s saying something because we’ve seen some highly ranked ones.”
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In three games, the one-time UM commit has completed 72 of 88 passes (81.8 percent) for 855 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I’m playing with a lot of confidence,” Bridgewater said. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson “calls a great game and our plays are designed for the quarterback to succeed.”
Cristobal said Bridgewater’s ball placement has been exceptional.
“He looks like a senior. He plays and has a temperament of a senior,” Cristobal said.
“Watching the TV commentary, I think they mentioned in camp, he completed 90 percent of his throws. When you say that, you’ve got to realize out of that 10 percent, you imagine some were drops, some were throwaways to not take a sack. So, he has been extremely efficient, extremely accurate.”
“Watching him in high school, you felt he was going to be that at some point. He just got there rather quickly,” Cristobal added.
Bridgewater, of course, never was supposed to play at FIU Stadium, where he recalls being on the winning side in five of seven high school games he played there. (By comparison, FIU redshirt sophomore Jake Medlock has won two home games as a starting quarterback).
Bridgewater was committed to Miami until head coach Randy Shannon’s was fired after the 2010 season. That reopened Bridgewater’s mind and the recruiting process. In swooped Louisville, which mines South Florida well.
Louisville is not Miami. Recruits from South Florida have a reputation for boomeranging back down here, a reputation earned by young men who hadn’t gone so far as to put on the promise ring of the local star factory. Instead, Bridgewater’s found a home away from home.
“I felt like I was home as soon as I arrived,” he said. “We had a lot of guys from Miami and the state of Florida here who welcomed me.”
When he stepped in for three plays last year against FIU in brief relief of Will Stein, the Panthers had just taken a 21-3 lead. Bridgewater completed both his passes for 14 yards after a 5-yard loss on a first-down running play. Louisville punted. Bridgewater returned the bench for the rest of the way in the 24-17 loss to FIU.
The next week, against Kentucky, Stein sustained a shoulder injury. Bridgewater took over and was 10 of 18 for 106 yards and two touchdowns in a win that ended a four-game losing streak to Louisville’s archrivals. He started the remaining nine regular season games and the Belk Bowl. The Cardinals won five of their last six regular season games to claim a share of the Big East title and Bridgewater was named the Big East Rookie of the Year.
But Bridgewater felt it was during spring practice that he got into a groove with the offense.
“During the spring, I was able to get a feel for Coach Watson,” Bridgewater said. “By him being my quarterbacks coach, we already had a relationship. I was able to get a feel for his play calling.”
Connections to Bridgewater stream through Saturday’s game. At Northwestern, Bridgewater split time at quarterback and wide receiver with Wayne Times, now FIU’s senior wide receiver. Once Times proved himself the better wide receiver, Northwestern coaches put him there and Bridgewater at quarterback. Northwestern’s line included FIU guard/center Donald Senat.
One of FIU’s prize recruits from last year, freshman quarterback E.J. Hilliard, considers Bridgewater “like a big brother” and credits his Northwestern predecessor for getting him to play high school football.
“I didn’t want to play quarterback. I just wanted to play basketball,” Hilliard said. “They had a football practice. He came and talked to me after Coach [Billy] Rolle had talked to me about playing football. Ever since then, we’ve been cool.”
Hilliard lives two doors down from Bridgewater so it’s natural to ask him for a slice of life that would best epitomize Bridgewater.
“He’s a strong individual with what he went through with his mother [Rose Murphy],” Hilliard said instantly. “That was a hard challenge for him. His mother had breast cancer. At one point, he wanted to stop playing football and take care of her. I would say he’s a strong individual. He’s very humble, down to earth guy. He’s a real competitor.”
(So is his mother, apparently. She’s beaten breast cancer.)
Despite so many tethers to FIU and his hometown, “I’m treating it like any other road game,” Bridgewater said. “We’re going down there to play a football game.”