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Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater leading program to new heights

Strolling down Bourbon Street this week, one can find tourists seeking their next libation, local musicians playing drums on the underside of buckets or emptying their lungs into saxophones to create the signature sound of New Orleans — and maybe even some fans decked out in Louisville or Florida gear.

But you won’t see Cardinals quarterback and Miami native Teddy Bridgewater, despite the fact that coach Charlie Strong did not set a curfew for his players in a city famous for its night life. According to the sophomore signal-caller and Miami Northwestern High alum, he doesn’t even go out — “at all.”

“We’re not here to see who can drink the most hurricanes,” he said. “We worked hard for this opportunity all year, and we’re not going to let the moment outshine us.”

Bridgewater, who turned 20 last month, has shown maturity beyond his years on and off the field, and although he rarely speaks about his personal accomplishments, it’s not a stretch to say he is solely responsible for Louisville making the trip to the Big Easy to play Florida on Wednesday in the Sugar Bowl.

Their hero

In the lead-up to just the second BCS bowl in Cardinals’ history, much has been made about Bridgewater’s heroic performance in a 20-17 regular-season finale win against Rutgers that clinched a Big East title and berth in Wednesday’s game. Bridgewater suffered a broken wrist and severely sprained ankle in a triple-overtime heartbreaking loss to Connecticut just five days prior, and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said Bridgewater was playing “on one leg and with one arm” when he orchestrated a second-half comeback to top the Scarlet Knights.

And while Watson said he didn’t know whether or not Bridgewater would be able to play in the game, the fact that he led the Cardinals to victory was no surprise.

“That’s just who he is,” Watson said. “He always gives it up for his teammates — loves to play the game. There’s no way he wasn’t going to play in that Rutgers game.”

In less than two full seasons on campus, Bridgewater has made such an impact on Louisville and Watson that the offensive coordinator was visibly moved when talking about the quarterback’s performance in that game. After taking over the starting job three games into the 2011 season, Bridgewater excelled as a freshman, completing 64.5 percent of his passes and earning Big East Rookie of the Year honors.

But Watson saw more in store for his young quarterback and challenged him in the offseason.

“When we went through our scheme evaluation in the winter, I was pretty critical of his play,” Watson said. “And I wanted to set a point with him that these are things [that] if you want to be a great quarterback, you have to do.”

Quick impact

Bridgewater responded. His numbers this year rank him among the nation’s best at the most important position, and Watson did not hold back when describing how much Bridgewater has accomplished in a short period of time.

“I’ve been doing this 30 years and coaching this position for 20 of those 30, and I’ve never had a guy who could do so much so early,” Watson said. “Teddy, he just wills himself. He sees himself succeeding at everything he does. ... He really challenges me as a coach. He wants to be coached hard. He wants to be a great player. He does not want me to be easy on him. He wants me to be tough on him, and he expects that out of me. … When you have a kid that wants to do that, who wants to chase excellence, you get a great player.”

Those facts have not gone unnoticed by Florida, a team that has made a name for itself this season by shutting down some of the best passers in the country. But despite beating Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M and forcing Georgia’s Aaron Murray into his ugliest game of the season, the Gators this week have said none of the quarterbacks they have faced this season compare to Bridgewater.

“He’s hands-down the best quarterback we’ve faced this year,” UF safety and AP All-American Matt Elam said, failing to back down when asked if Bridgewater is better than the likes of Manziel or Murray. “Hands down, yes. … He can move around and throw the ball. He throws great balls. He doesn’t make bad decisions.”

Healthy again

With more than a month to heal since Louisville’s last game, Bridgewater said this week that the ankle and wrist that hobbled him against Rutgers should not be a factor against Florida. And although he is starting to receive national attention and high praise for his efforts, Bridgewater is remaining even-keeled heading into the biggest game of his young career — and possibly the biggest in his program’s history.

But, like everything he’s done so far, that should not really come as a surprise.

“We don’t change anything [in preparation for this game],” Bridgewater said. “Every day has been a ‘grind-it-out’ day, and we approach each day with that mentality. … Games like these, we’re not going to try to put an ‘S’ on our chests and a cape on our back. You just take what they give you.”

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