NEW ORLEANS — When safety Matt Elam and some of his teammates said Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was the best the Gators would face all season, they raised a few eyebrows.
After all, Florida had faced its share of top SEC quarterbacks, including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. So it seemed like hyperbole. By the end of Wednesday night, not so much.
Bridgewater was 20-of-32 for 266 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors and lead No. 22 Louisville to a 33-23 victory over No. 4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl before an announced 54,178 at the Superdome.
"I told our players I love them so much and respect them so much," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "It just means a lot for me to see this happen for them. If you focus right and prepare well, you can beat anybody."
The game wasn't as close as the score suggests. Florida's Jeff Driskel threw a 5-yard pass to Land O'Lakes High alum Kent Taylor with 2:13 left.
Strong, the Gators' former defensive coordinator, said the Cardinals needed a win for validation, to prove they could play with powers such as SEC teams.
They earned it with domination, scoring more points against a Gator defense that entered ranked No. 3 in the nation in scoring like no other opponent this season.
It was the most points the Gators have given up in a bowl game since the 2008 Capital One, a 41-35 loss to Michigan.
By the end, Louisville fans were chanting "Charlie" for their beloved third-year coach and "overrated" at the Gators.
"This is an unfortunate setback," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "I apologize to our fans and our university, but we've had a great year."
Florida trailed 15 seconds into the game and never led. It didn't convert a third down until 28 seconds into the fourth and was hurt by penalties, including multiple personal fouls. Florida had nine for 98 yards.
Louisville, which like UF finished 11-2, took the lead when Driskel's first pass was intercepted by cornerback Terell Floyd, who returned it 38 yards.
The Cardinals held Florida to 286 yards, 111 rushing.
"We didn't come through," said Driskel, 16-of-29 for 175 yards and two interceptions. "We didn't make enough plays."
UF trailed 24-10 at halftime — its largest halftime deficit of the season. And that was only after Driskel went 4-for-4 for 24 yards during an 11-play, 75 yard drive capped by former Armwood High standout Matt Jones' 1-yard run with 10 seconds left.
Florida's other touchdowns came on a 100-yard kickoff return by Andre Debose — the longest in Sugar Bowl history — with 7:41 left in the game.
Entering the game, the Gators had eight come-from-behind victories this season. But early on, you could sense this time might be different. Florida couldn't get anything going on offense and was 0-of-4 on third downs in the first half. (Louisville was 5-of-6.)
The Cardinals had just 5 rushing yards (on 15 carries) in the first half and by the end of the third quarter had just 15. Yet its lack of a run game wasn't much of a factor because of Bridgewater, who was nearly unstoppable.