NEW ORLEANS – Louisville ended Florida's magical season on a sour note, pouncing on the Gators early and delivering a 33-23 loss in the Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Wednesday night.
Florida (11-2, 7-1 SEC) was unable to slow down Cardinal signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater, who went 20-of-32 passing for 266 yards and two touchdowns, while guiding an offense the converted one critical third-down conversion after another, going 9-for-14 on the night.
Louisville (11-2) grabbed a quick 7-0 lead on a 38-yard interception return by Terell Floyd on the game's first offensive play and just :15 in. Gators' quarterback Jeff Driskel threw behind Andre Debose who tipped the ball up and Floyd grabbed it and went the distance for the early lead.
After a three-and-out by the Gators' offense on its second possession, Jeremy Wright gave the Cardinals a 14-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run, capping a 13-play, 83-yard drive that included three crucial conversions on third-and-long.
Bridgewater completed 4-of-5 passes for 66 yards on the Cardinals' opening possession in a sign of things to come.
On Florida's third drive, the offense finally began to click. Driskel connected with Omarius Hines for 14 yards and Mike Gillislee for 13, while Trey Burton scurried 19 yards on two carries out of the Wildcat as the Gators marched 66 yards to the Louisville 15-yard line.
Driskel's third down pass to Frankie Hammond in the end zone fell incomplete and the Gators settled for a 33-yard field goal from Caleb Sturgis with 14:50 left in the first half and the Gators cut the Louisville lead to 14-3.
The field goal was Sturgis's 24th of the season breaking the single-season school record he shared with Bobby Raymond, who connected on 23 field goals in 1984.
Louisville responded with another long drive, marching 66 yards on 11 plays and getting a 27-yard field goal by John Wallace with 8:39 left in the half to take a 17-3 lead.
The Cardinals weren't done building a sizable first half lead, as Bridgewater continued to carve up the Gators' defense, connecting with DaVante Parker for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 2:57 left in opening half to extend the lead to 24-3.
The Gators got a much-needed late score, marching 75 yards on 11 plays and capping it with a 1-yard touchdown run from Matt Jones with :10 left in the half.
Facing a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Gators passed on a field goal, but Louisville had no time outs left and couldn't adjust to UF's formation, and Jones punched in straight up the middle.
As the second half started, the Gators gambled it proved costly.
Florida tried on onside kick to start the second half, and Louisville recovered. Adding to it, Florida committed two personal fouls setting up Louisville at the Gators' 19. On the first play from scrimmage in the second half Bridgewater hit Damian Copeland for a 19-yard touchdown pass to extend the Louisville lead to 30-10. The Gators blocked the extra point.
Wallace added a 30-yard field goal with 7:54 to go in the fourth quarter to increase the lead to 33-10.
On the ensuing kick, Andre Debose's set a Sugar Bowl record with a 100-yard touchdown return to cut it to 33-17. It was the school-record fourth of his career.
The Gators got the ball back again with 5:59 remaining and Driskel guided the Gators down the field, hitting Kent Taylor for a 5-yard touchdown pass to make it 33-23 with 2:13 to go. Needing a two-point conversion, however, Driskel was sacked keeping it a 10-point game.
Louisville recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock to secure its first Sugar Bowl win.
The Gators struggled to find an offensive rhythm all night, as they were limited to 285 total yards of offense.
Driskel hit 16-of-29 passes for 175 yards and the late touchdown, but turned the ball over three times on the night: two interceptions and a fumble.
Louisville had a sizable advantage in time of possession as the Cardinals controlled the ball for 35:07 to 24:53 for Florida. The Gators committed nine penalties for 97 yards on the night.