New Orleans, LA – The Sugar Bowl was decided early and it certainly wasn't the outcome most prognosticators expected.
Louisville, after needing a tiebreaker to gain the automatic BCS bowl bid from the underwhelming Big East Conference, surprisingly handled SEC powerhouse Florida, 33-23, in a showdown at the Superdome more lopsided than the final score indicated.
Teddy Bridgewater was named the game's MVP after throwing for 266 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception for the No. 22 Cardinals (11-2), whose defense forced three turnovers and held the fourth-ranked Gators to 286 yards.
"We always say we need to take this football program to a different level. We knew that this was a big game for us. It sets the tone for next season for this whole program," said Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, who was the defensive coordinator at Florida from 2003-09.
Florida (11-2) went 4-1 against ranked opponents in the regular season and was a double-digit favorite coming in, but the Gators fell behind on the first play from scrimmage after Terell Floyd returned an interception for a TD and never recovered.
Jeff Driskel was picked off twice, lost a fumble and guided a Gators offense that had a 3-for-10 conversion rate on third down.
Driskel threw just three interceptions during the regular season, but his first pass tipped off his intended receiver's hands and fell into the arms of Floyd, who took it 38 yards untouched the other way.
Florida went three-and-out on its next touch, and Bridgewater converted three third-and-longs on the ensuing 12-play, 83-yard drive. After B.J. Butler bulled his way down to the 1-yard line on a 23-yard catch-and-run, Jeremy Wright ran one in for a 14-0 lead less than eight minutes in.
After moving into the red zone, the Gators stalled on a drive that spanned the first and second quarters, and Caleb Sturgis put them on the board with a 33- yard field goal.
Louisville's John Wallace tacked on a 27-yard kick on the ensuing possession, and the underdogs went ahead 24-3 when Bridgewater and DeVante Parker hooked up for a 15-yard touchdown with 2:57 remaining in the half. Parker's over-the- shoulder grab along the sideline came on 3rd-and-13, a common theme for the game as Louisville went 9-of-14 on third-down tries.
The Gators' first touchdown came with 10 seconds left in the half. On 4th-and- goal from the one, the Gators lined up with three down lineman and one tailback. The unorthodox formation caught Louisville off guard, and Matt Jones took a handoff and pulled Florida within 24-10 at halftime.
Trying to build off the momentum, the Gators opted for an onsides kick to open the second half, but the strategy did not surprise the Cardinals, who recovered near midfield and started the drive at the Florida 19-yard line after a pair of personal foul penalties.
Much like the first half, Louisville scored on the first snap of the second, with Bridgewater throwing a perfect fade to Damian Copeland in the end zone.
The extra point was blocked, but Louisville took over again with good field position when Calvin Pryor came in on a corner blitz and hit Driskel just before he was about to throw. Driskel fumbled and Lorenzo Mauldin recovered at the opposing 4-yard line.
Wallace wound up missing a 43-yard field goal after a pair of sacks moved the Cardinals back, and the kicker had a 41-yard try blocked on the next touch.
The Gators gained some steam on Josh Evans' interception in Louisville territory late in the third, but Driskel was picked off in the end zone by Andrew Johnson off another tipped pass.
Wallace connected on a 30-yard field goal to cap an 11-play, 65-yard drive for a healthy 33-10 lead with 7:54 to play.
Andre Debose returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for the Gators, who failed to recover the onsides kick but pulled even closer when Driskel and Kent Taylor hooked up for a 5-yard touchdown with 2:13 remaining.
The comeback came up short, however, after the two-point conversion failed and the onsides kick went Louisville's way.
"We got outcoached and outplayed. That's the bottom line," Florida head coach Will Muschamp said. "This was an unfortunate setback. Obviously this is a sour day and I apologize to our fans and the university."
Louisville won its only other BCS bowl appearance with a victory over Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl ... This is the fourth 11-win season for Louisville in the last 12 campaigns ... Wright had a game-high 84 yards rushing on 25 carries ... Driskel completed 16-of-29 passes for 175 yards ... Florida was making its eighth consecutive January bowl appearance, the longest active streak in the nation ... Florida allowed just 12.9 points per game in the regular season ... Florida fell to 5-2 in BCS bowls ... Louisville is 8-8-1 all-time in bowls ... Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, a native of Louisville, was on-hand for the opening coin toss.