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CINCINNATI – Teddy Bridgewater gave No. 19 Louisville a fantastic farewell to its Ohio River rivalry and its latest conference.
The elusive quarterback pulled off a couple of great escapes during a fourth-quarter rally, and the Cardinals made their farewell to the American Athletic Conference by beating Cincinnati 31-24 in overtime on Thursday night.
"Coach tells us all the time to ride the wave," said Bridgewater, who was 23 of 37 for 255 yards with three touchdowns on a wet, raw night. "We rode it. Then Cincinnati rode it for a while, but we knew we would ride it again and we did."
The comeback gave No. 15 Central Florida the first AAC title and its BCS bowl berth. Louisville (11-1, 7-1) lost only one game all season — at home to Central Florida — and that decided it.
The Bearcats (9-3, 6-2) had a very slim chance of winning the title, but that ended in overtime along with their six-game winning streak.
"You couldn't have asked for any more out of this team," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "You could tell tonight how much we've grown up."
Five things learned from the final game in a long-standing rivalry:
IT WAS SOME RIVALRY: The Cardinals and Bearcats have played since 1929, a rivalry that developed its own trophy — the Keg of Nails — and a lot of close finishes. The last two went to overtime in the rain, and Louisville won both of them. The Cardinals won 34-31 in Louisville last year, and got to keep the keg by pulling out another one on Dominique Brown's 2-yard run in overtime. Brendon Kay's fourth-down pass fell incomplete to end it. Louisville heads to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season while the Bearcats stay behind in the AAC.
BOWLS ARE LINING UP: Louisville won the last Big East title and beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals were picked to win the first AAC title, but a 38-35 loss to Central Florida made the difference. Instead of a BCS bowl, they'll play in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28. The Bearcats could be headed to the Belk Bowl.
"It was great to see this team finish the way they finished," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "You talk about a team with a lot of resiliency and a lot of heart. There were high expectations this season."
BRIDGEWATER CAN AMAZE: With Louisville trailing 14-10 midway through the fourth quarter, Bridgewater slipped out of three tackles and ran 14 yards on fourth-and-12 to keep a drive going. He then slipped away from several defenders and made an off-balance throw for a 22-yard touchdown to Damian Copeland. Not many quarterbacks can do that.
"The plays Teddy made in that fourth quarter," Strong said with admiration. "I thought he was sacked. Then he breaks free and gets the ball to Damian Copeland."
Bridgewater made the difference.
"We're athletic at defensive end, and we were grabbing air a lot of times," Tuberville said. "We had him in our grasp. That fourth-down run, that was obviously the one that took the air out of our defense."
KAY'S TOUGH: The sixth-year senior has played through injuries all season. He took several more tough hits, including one that left him with an injured left ankle at the start of the second half. He stayed in and limped around, keeping up with Bridgewater until the end. Kay was 22 of 40 for 304 yards with two touchdown runs and two interceptions. He went for an MRI on the ankle after the game.
"That's how tough the kid is," Tuberville said. "You can't say enough about him. I'm proud he was my quarterback for the last nine games."
BEARCAT GOODBYE: It was quite a way for Cincinnati to close out its schedule at Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats will move to Paul Brown Stadium next season while their on-campus stadium undergoes a major renovation. They'll return to campus for the 2015 season.
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: twitter.com/apjoekay