NEW ORLEANS — Louisville safety Calvin Pryor predicted the Cardinals would ‘‘shock the world’’ against Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
Brave words that he and his teammates backed up from start to finish.
Terell Floyd returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown on the first play, dual-threat quarterback Teddy Bridgewater directed a handful of scoring drives, and No. 22 Louisville stunned the fourth-ranked Gators, 33-23, in the Sugar Bowl Wednesday night.
Shaking off an early hit that flattened him and knocked off his helmet, Bridgewater was 20 of 32 passing for 266 yards and two touchdowns against the heavily favored Gators. Among his throws was a pinpoint, 15-yard timing toss that DeVante Parker acrobatically grabbed as he touched one foot down in the corner of the end zone.
His other scoring strike went to Damian Copeland from 19 yards one play after a surprise onside kick by the Gators had backfired badly. Jeremy Wright had a short touchdown run that gave the two-touchdown underdogs from the Big East a 14-0 lead from which the Gators never recovered.
By the end, the chant, ‘‘Charlie, Charlie!’’ — for third-year Louisville coach Charlie Strong, the former defensive coordinator for the Gators — echoed from sections of the Superdome occupied by red-clad Cardinals fans.
‘‘They kind of thought we were going to come in and lay down and give them the game,’’ Floyd said. ‘‘But Coach Strong always preaches that we’re better than any team in the nation if we come out and play hard. Coach Strong believed in us and our coaching staff believed in us and we came in and believed in ourselves.’’
Florida never trailed by more than 10 points this season, and the Southeastern Conference power had lost only once going into this game. The defeat dropped SEC teams to 3-3 this bowl season, with Alabama, Texas A&M, and Mississippi still left to play.
Louisville and Florida each finished at 11-2.
Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel, who had thrown only three interceptions all season, turned the ball over three times on two interceptions — both tipped passes — and a fumble. He finished 16 of 29 for 175 yards.
Down, 33-10, midway through the fourth period, Florida tried to rally. Andre Debose scored on a 100-yard kickoff return and Driskel threw a TD pass to tight end Kent Taylor with 2:13 left. But when Louisville defenders piled on Driskel to thwart the 2-point try, the game was essentially over.
Florida didn’t score until Caleb Sturgis’s 33-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
The Gators finally got in the end zone with a trick play in the closing seconds of the half. They changed personnel as if to kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the 1, but lined up in a combination of swinging-gate and shotgun formations and handed to Matt Jones.
Jones met only minimal resistance as he crashed into the end zone to cap an 11-play, 74-yard drive that included four straight completions and four straight runs by Driskel.
The Gators tried to keep the momentum with a surprise onside kick to open the third quarter, but not only did Louisville recover, Florida’s Chris Johnson was called for a personal foul and ejected for jabbing at Louisville’s Zed Evans. That gave Louisville the ball on the Florida 19, from where Bridgewater needed one play to find Copeland for his score.
On the following kickoff, Evans cut down kick returner Loucheiz Purifoy with a vicious low, high-speed hit that shook Purifoy up. Soon after, Driskel was sacked hard from behind and stripped by Pryor.
Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin recovered on the Florida 4, but the Gators’ defense drove the Cardinals backward and forced a missed field goal, but that was one of few moral victories for the frustrated Gators.
After Louisville native Muhammad Ali was on the field for the coin toss, the Cardinals quickly stung the Gators. Floyd, one of nearly three dozen Louisville players from the state of Florida, made the play.
Driskel was looking for seldom-targeted Debose, who’d had only two catches all season. The throw was a bit behind Debose and the receiver tipped it, making for an easy catch and score for Floyd only 15 seconds into the game.
Louisville won the Big East berth to this game. It beat Rutgers in late November to virtually lock up the conference title, sealing that win on a late interception by Floyd.