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January 7, 2013

Smith: A small bump in the road




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Louisville coach and former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong put it best right after his team's surprising 33-23 butt-kicking of the Gators in the Sugar Bowl.

"I look at this performance tonight, and I sometimes wonder why didn't we do this the whole season," he said.

No kidding. The Cardinals, who had beaten only Temple and Kentucky by more than 10 points among their FBS foes, played far better in the Superdome than at any point on their road to New Orleans. And that's why you shouldn't be too broken up about Florida's disappointing, downright ugly performance last Wednesday.

Sometimes it is only fair to credit the opponent. The Gators were ugly offensively for most of the year, but the defense always saved the day, even playing superbly in the lone loss against Georgia. Then they ran into Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was simply sharper than anyone they had faced, including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

Bridgewater's two touchdown passes were terrific. The first one was beyond belief, a gorgeous lofted thrown on the run to the back corner of the end zone that turned a third-and-13 into a 15-yard touchdown to DeVante Parker, who caught it in full stride just in-bounds. I'll be honest. I saw the catch for the first time on a TV replay in the press box because when the referees flagged Florida for pass interference on the play, I glanced away, assuming the ball would be well out of reach of Parker. I wondered why the Cardinals were celebrating in the end zone.

No other quarterback UF faced would have completed that throw, not even Manziel or Georgia's Aaron Murray.

Bridgewater's second TD pass was pretty, too. Damian Copeland got by cornerback Jaylen Watkins with a double move, but not by much, on Louisville's first snap of the second half. If Bridgewater had not led him perfectly on the 19-yard scoring strike, Watkins would have recovered to make the play.

Even though the Gators had praised Bridgewater's accuracy before the game, with safety Matt Elam labeling him, "hands down the best quarterback we will face this season," they weren't prepared for his perfection. He threw like Drew Brees in the Superdome and bought time with his feet like Aaron Rodgers.

Bridgewater was so good, Florida coach Will Muschamp panicked. The Gators appeared to have momentum after a fake field goal resulted in a touchdown run that cut the deficit to 24-10 with 10 seconds left in the first half, but Muschamp called for an onside kick to start the third quarter.

"We wanted to steal a possession at the start of the second half," Muschamp said. "We had struggled defensively in the first half and felt like you to try to gain momentum in the game."

Wow. One half of watching Bridgewater whip Florida single-handedly (Louisville's running game was nonexistent) convinced Muschamp his defense was in trouble even though the Gators had shut down everyone in the second halves of games all year. That's a stronger testament to Bridgewater's brilliance than anything Muschamp said about him directly.

If any other quarterback had performed as well as Bridgewater, Florida likely would not have been 11-1 and playing in the Sugar Bowl. Having to match an opponent's scoring exposed the weaknesses that were evident from start to finish this season, but had not cost the Gators any wins aside from that fluky, six-turnover debacle against Georgia.

They don't have a functional passing game, which is partly Jeff Driskel's fault and partly his receivers' fault. Driskel, like Bridgewater, is a good athlete, but the difference in their pocket sense is glaring. Louisville, which ranked 88th nationally in sacks, sacked him three times.

There is a gap in their accuracy, too. Driskel's first throw turned into a pick-six because it was behind receiver Andre Debose, a mistake Bridgewater never made.

So much for the recruiting rankings in 2011 that had Driskel as the No. 1 pro-style prospect in the nation and Bridgewater as the No. 6 dual-threat prospect, three spots behind Jacoby Brissett.

The Gators had not trailed by more than 10 points all year. They trailed the Cardinals by at least 10 points for the final 51:47 and were ill-equipped to rally from a sizable deficit.

Driskel's development is essential for Florida to take the next step in 2013 -clearly the coaches believe in him more than Brissett-but don't despair too much because of one dismal bowl result.

This was Louisville's Super Bowl-the biggest game in program history.

For Florida's players, it meant far less. With the SEC title and national championship game eluding them, they had already won their most important game in Tallahassee. Getting just as high for a two-touchdown-underdog Big East opponent was difficult.

The Gators weren't flat in the Superdome --linebacker James Bostic flattened Bridgewater on Louisville's first snap to dispense with that notion - but they weren't at an emotional peak.

In some ways, this was similar to the Sugar Bowl 21 years earlier, when Lou Holtz and Notre Dame ran roughshod over a Florida team that had won its first official SEC title and beaten FSU for the first time in five years. Those Gators had a legitimate excuse, with multiple linebacker injuries forcing walk-on Greg Diamond to contend with bruising back Jerome Bettis.

Both times, though, Florida ran into a fired-up underdog that had the best player on the field.

Bettis' big day spoiled the end of Steve Spurrier's second season, but it did not slow down the Gators' ascent to top dog in the SEC.

Bridgewater's outburst won't have a lasting effect on Muschamp's rise, either. He and offensive coordinator Brent Pease already knew they had plenty to work on for year three.

If anything, the humbling performance against Louisville will galvanize Driskel and company to get better in the off-season.

This year Muschamp won 11 times with a team that had no reliable passing game, no big-time receivers and an average offensive line.

What do you think happens when he gets those pieces in place to go with what should annually be one of the nation's top defenses?

Exactly!

Wednesday night was one small bump in the road for the Florida football team going forward.


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