LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Of all the situations that can make a quarterback’s pulse race, third-and-nine at your own 2-yard line ranks high on the list.
Especially when it’s the initial third down of the game. And of the season.
That’s the precise predicament Louisville sophomore Teddy Bridgewater found himself in Sunday afternoon against hated rival Kentucky. Not ideal.
Given the youth of the quarterback and the high-risk, low-reward down and distance, that might be a give-up down for a lot of offensive coordinators. But Shawn Watson is a Bridgewater believer, and the feeling is mutual. So the call was a pass from the end zone for receiver Damian Copeland.
Bridgewater then executed like the five-star recruiting coup he was billed to be when Louisville snagged him out of South Florida in 2011, beating out powers like LSU, Florida, Miami and Tennessee. He threaded a smart pass to Copeland, who made a nifty catch for 23 yards along the sideline. The largest crowd to ever see a Louisville home game (55,386) roared in response, and the No. 25 Cardinals were on their way to a 99-yard touchdown drive and a thorough beating of the Wildcats.
The final score was 32-14, but it was only that close because Louisville coach Charlie Strong backed off on his friend, embattled Kentucky coach Joker Phillips. Strong removed Bridgewater from the game when it was 32-7 in the third quarter, replacing him with senior Will Stein even though coaching etiquette would easily have allowed for more Bridgewater-led possessions.
Bridgewater sat out the final 19 minutes of the game, which might have kept him from the kind of numbers that get a rising talent more national attention. Even without the stat-padding opportunity, his day was fairly spectacular: 19 completions in 21 attempts for 232 yards. One of his two incompletions was an intentional throw-away and the other was low but hit the receiver’s hands.
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Bridgewater threw with velocity. He threw with touch. He threw on the run. He altered his release point when pressure dictated it. He checked down to second and third receivers. He was unfailingly accurate. He plundered a Kentucky defense that couldn’t stop much of anything until Strong stopped the Cardinals by taking Bridgewater out.
"Teddy was seeing the right looks and making great passes," Stein said. "Those are great numbers."
A year ago at this time, Bridgewater was backing up Stein. It wasn’t until Stein got hurt against Kentucky in Lexington in the third game of the year that Bridgewater moved into the starting lineup, and he was an excitable guy in the pocket. Tough, talented, charismatic – but excitable.
"Last year I tended to play fast, rush things," Bridgewater said. "[The game] has slowed down a lot. Last year I felt I was just playing football. Now I’m playing with a purpose."
The entire Louisville team is playing with a purpose. It is trying to restore luster to a program that was riding high under Bobby Petrino from 2003-06 before crashing under Steve Kragthorpe, and to a league that has become a national piñata.
The young Cardinals were the preseason pick to win the Big East, which is almost a condemnation more than praise. The league has taken a beating for its lack of football prowess, and that disrespect intensified when West Virginia bolted for the Big 12 along with TCU, which left the Big East before ever playing a game.
So being the preseason favorite in the Big East is like being voted the world’s tallest midget. It doesn’t necessarily command respect – and that respect dwindles further when a Pittsburgh team picked to finish near the top is dominated in its opener by, um, Youngstown State.
That made this game a big one by Big East standards. Kentucky is bad enough that Phillips is on very thin ice, but it also is a Southeastern Conference member. And if a Big East team can blow out an SEC opponent – even Kentucky – it counts for something. This was the Wildcats’ worst non-conference loss in six years, since being blown out by a Louisville team on its way to the Orange Bowl.
"We still have a lot to learn and improve upon," Strong said. "But just seeing a Big East team beat an SEC opponent speaks volumes."
How far Louisville goes will depend on a number of factors. Prominent among them is the play of a secondary that let a lot of receivers run freely Sunday and in the bowl game last year against North Carolina State. But the biggest key may be Bridgewater, who has difference-maker capabilities – especially as he continues to grow into the job.
"He’s come a long way," center Mario Benavides said. "Some of the stuff he’s doing now is unbelievable. If we do our job as an offensive line, Teddy will have a heck of a season."
If Sunday is any indication, Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville may have a heck of a season together.
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