Orlando, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Teddy Bridgewater will lead the 18th-ranked Louisville Cardinals, perhaps for the last time, as they take on the Miami- Florida Hurricanes in the Russell Athletic Bowl at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
One slip up was the difference between a second straight BCS Bowl bid this year for Louisville, which largely lived up to its preseason billing. The Cardinals rolled to an 11-1 victory on the campaign but a 38-35 loss to UCF in mid-October dashed any hopes at a BCS or even national title shot. It is that loss that might define the season , as even though the Cardinals did not lose again after, neither did UCF, keeping Louisville from a consecutive conference title.
Dwelling on what could have been won't help now, as the Cardinals prepare for their 18th bowl appearance in program history. It is also their fourth in as many years under head coach Charlie Strong, whose success at the helm has grabbed the attention of some major programs with coaching vacancies. Strong's teams have gone 2-1 in bowl games, including the stunning 33-23 win over No. 4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl last season.
This matchup is an important one for Miami. Though the Hurricanes had records that made them bowl eligible in the past two season, a self-imposed postseason ban while the program was investigated by the NCAA kept them out. Now head coach Al Golden gets to walk the sidelines during a bowl game for the first time in his three years as Miami's head coach.
The third campaign under Golden was the best yet. The Hurricanes roared out of the gate, winning their first seven games and rising to No. 7 in the Top 25. The fun stopped there when they were routed by Florida State (41-14) and then defeated by Virginia Tech (42-24) and Duke (48-30) in the next two games. Miami recovered for wins in its last two bouts to finish the regular season at 9-3. The nine wins match the most since 2009. A win against the Cardinals would give the Hurricanes 10 wins for the first time since 2003 and first time as an ACC squad.
Even with the ban, the Hurricanes still have a longer history in the postseason than Louisville. The Hurricanes have been to 34 bowl games previously, though they have lost each of their last three.
In terms of head-to-head history, there has not been much parity between these programs. Miami has a 9-1-1 record all-time against the Cardinals. Louisville did win the last showdown, a 31-7 rout in 2006.
The Hurricanes have gradually improved offensively during Golden's three seasons and the 2013 campaign was no different. The Hurricanes ranked third in the league in total offense (446.8 ypg) after finishing fifth a year ago.
Unfortunately the loss of leading rusher Duke Johnson (920 yards, six TDs) during the Florida State game has left the Hurricanes with a bit less punch. Filling in for Johnson has been a combination of Dallas Crawford (523 yards, 12 TDs) and Gus Edwards (300 yards, four TDs). Crawford has gotten more of the work, and had been producing well in a complementary role before Johnson's injury.
Johnson's injury also made Golden shift his philosophy offensively a bit as the Hurricanes had more passing plays than rushing in three of their final four games. Benefiting from the additional work was quarterback Stephen Morris. On the season Morris has accumulated 21 touchdowns and 2,868 yards, on 58.7 percent passing. He was guilty of 12 interceptions during the regular season. However, he really stepped up down the stretch and had just a pair of picks in the four games without Johnson.
Morris' top receiving options will be good to go as Allen Hurns (60 receptions, 1,138 yards, six TDs) and Stacy Coley (30 receptions, 559 yards, seven TDs) each have a chance to build on already strong campaigns. Hurns was a second-team selection for All-ACC honors and had over 100 yards in six games, including the last four. Herb Waters (28 receptions, 406 yards, five TDs) and Clive Walford (30 receptions, 372 yards, two TDs) will also figure into the equation.
The Hurricanes have not been as impressive on the defensive side this season. It is a surprising development since Golden built up his reputation while the head coach at Temple on a defense-first mentality. This season Miami has ranked second to last in the ACC in yards allowed (415.8 ypg). Denzel Perryman (104 tackles) anchors the unit, and was the only defender on the team to be named to either the first or second All-ACC team. Tracy Howard (32 tackles, four INTs) may not have been selected, but he did help the Hurricanes create the third-most turnovers in the ACC (27).
Now, the Miami defense has to deal with Bridgewater, a test Golden has not undersold to his team at all.
"He has speed, good corps of receivers, knows how to distribute the football, doesn't make many mistakes with the football, can move in the pocket," Golden said. "It���s going to be a great challenge for our corners and safeties."
Even though he didn't get an invite to New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, it would be ridiculous to say Bridgewater had a disappointing year. The Cardinals's signal caller, who is still being pegged as the No. 1 overall pick in May's NFL Draft, has thrown for 3,523 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. Golden is right about him not making mistakes as well with Bridgewater completing 70.2 percent of his pass attempts and being intercepted only four times.
Led by Bridgewater the Cardinals were the second best offensive team in the American Athletic Conference this season, averaging 453.1 yards of total offense per game.
"There is a lot of talent over here on the offensive side of the ball," Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "We have developed an offense. We raised these kids. Last year, our defense was growing, so the offense had to take on a larger role. This year, we have done it as a team."
The most talented unit outside of quarterback has to be the receiving corps. DeVante Parker (46 receptions, 743 yards, 11 TDs) and Damian Copeland (52 receptions, 690 yards, five TDs) are two of the best pass-catchers in the country, let alone the AAC. Parker was named to the conference's first-team and even though he did not earns such honors, Copeland had 115 yards on eight receptions in the only game Parker missed. Eli Rogers (41 receptions, 498 yards, four TDs) and Gerald Christian (26 receptions, 401 yards, four TDs) are also important players.
The tandem of Dominique Brown (783 yards, eight TDs) and Senorise Perry (631 yards, six TDs) keeps the team moving on the ground. Brown is the closest thing to a feature back the Cardinals have, but sharing the load is the real game plan.
For how strong they are offensively, the Cardinals are even better on defense. They rank behind only Michigan State in total defense (257.9 ypg) and Alabama and Florida State in points allowed (12.4 ppg). Louisville placed six defenders on the All-AAC teams, highlighted by Marcus Smith (12.5 sacks) and Calvin Pryor (69 tackles, three INTs). The balance from the front to the secondary is evident with Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks) and Charles Gaines (five INTs) also putting forth impressive campaigns.