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NEW ORLEANS Terell Floyd and the Louisville Cardinals gave the embattled Big East Conference at least one more triumphant night in a major bowl — and at the expense of a top team from the mighty SEC.
Floyd returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown on the first play, dual-threat quarterback Teddy Bridgewater directed a handful of scoring drives and No. 22 Louisville stunned the fourth-ranked Gators 33-23 in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night.
"I can't speak for the whole Big East, but I can speak for Louisville and I think this means a lot for us," Floyd said. "We showed the world we can play with the best."
The Big East is in a transitional phase and losing some of its top football programs in the process. Boise State has recently backed out of its Big East commitment and Louisville has plans to join the ACC.
Even this year, the Big East wasn't getting much respect. Louisville, the league champion, was a two-touchdown underdog in the Sugar Bowl.
But by the end, the chant, "Charlie, Charlie!" echoed from sections of the Superdome occupied by red-clad Cardinals fans. It was their way of serenading third-year Louisville coach Charlie Strong, the former defensive coordinator for the Gators, who has elevated Cardinals football to new heights and recently turned down a chance to leave for the top job at Tennessee.
"I look at this performance tonight, and I sometimes wonder, `Why didn't we do this the whole season,"' Strong said. "We said this at the beginning: We just take care of our job and do what we're supposed to do, don't worry about who we're playing."
Shaking off an early hit that flattened him and knocked off his helmet, Bridgewater was 20 of 32 passing for 266 yards and two touchdowns. Among his throws was a pinpoint, 15-yard timing toss that DeVante Parker grabbed as he touched one foot down in the corner of the end zone.
"I looked at what did and didn't work for quarterbacks during the regular season," said Bridgewater, picked as the game's top player. "They faced guys forcing throws ... and coach tells me, `No capes on your back or `S' on your chest, take what the defense give you.' That's what I took. Film study was vital."
His other scoring strike went to Damian Copeland from 19 yards one play after a surprise onside kick by the Gators backfired. Jeremy Wright had a short touchdown run that gave Louisville (11-2) a 14-0 lead the Gators couldn't overcome.
"Louisville's offensive line rose to the occasion, giving Teddy Bridgewater protection against a ferocious Florida pass rush," writes CBSSports.com's Chip Patterson. "The unit delivered arguably their best performance of the season."
Florida (11-2) never trailed by more than 10 points this season. The defeat dropped SEC teams to 3-3 this bowl season, with Alabama, Texas A&M and Mississippi still to play.
"We got outcoached and outplayed," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "That's what I told the football team. That's the bottom line."
Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel, who had thrown only three interceptions all season, turned the ball over three times on two interceptions — both tipped passes — and a fumble. He finished 16 of 29 for 175 yards.
Down 33-10 midway through the fourth period, Florida tried to rally. Andre Debose scored on a 100-yard kickoff return and Driskel threw a TD pass to tight end Kent Taylor with 2:13 left. But when Louisville defenders piled on Driskel to thwart the 2-point try, the game was essentially over.
Florida didn't score until Caleb Sturgis's 33-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
The Gators finally got in the end zone with a trick play in the closing seconds of the half. They changed personnel as if to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but lined up in a bizarre combination of swinging-gate and shotgun formations and handed off to Matt Jones.
The Gators tried to keep the momentum with a surprise onside kick to open the third quarter, but not only did Louisville recover, Florida's Chris Johnson was called for a personal foul and ejected for jabbing at Louisville's Zed Evans. That gave Louisville the ball on the Florida 19, from where Bridgewater needed one play to find Copeland for his score.
"We game-planned it and felt good about it," Muschamp said of the onside kick attempt. "We wanted to steal a possession at the start of the second half."
On the following kickoff, Evans cut down kick returner Loucheiz Purifoy with a vicious low, high-speed hit that shook Purifoy up. Soon after, Driskel was sacked hard from behind and stripped by safety Calvin Pryor, ending another Florida drive with a turnover.
"We had the right attitude, had the right mindset that we would go out and beat this team," Pryor said.
After Louisville native Muhammad Ali was on the field for the coin toss, the Cardinals quickly stung the Gators. Floyd, one of nearly three dozen Louisville players from Florida, made the play.
Driskel was looking for seldom-targeted Debose, who'd had only two catches all season.
"I threw it behind him, (he) tried to make a play on it, tipped it right to the guy," Driskel said. "Unfortunate to start the game like that."
When Louisville's offense got the ball later in the quarter, the Florida defense, ranked among the best in the nation this season, sought to intimidate the Cardinals with one heavy hit after another.
One blow by Jon Bostic knocked Bridgewater's helmet off moments after he'd floated an incomplete pass down the right sideline. Bostic was called for a personal foul, however, which seemed to get the Cardinals opening drive rolling. Later, Wright lost his helmet during a 3-yard gain and took another heavy hit before he went down.
Louisville kept coming.
B.J. Butler turned a short catch into a 23-yard gain down to the Florida 1. Then Wright punched it in to give the Cardinals an early two-TD lead over a team that finished third in the BCS standings, one spot too low to play for a national title in Miami.
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