On Saturday, Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and selected members of the Cardinals’ offense met with reporters to preview Wednesday’s matchup with Florida in the 79th Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
Character, Football IQ Set Bridgewater Apart
The rise of sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater among the nation’s top signal callers has been impressive to watch. Whether it’s been leading the Cardinals to one of their numerous fourth quarter wins this season, or playing brilliantly through multiple injuries in Louisville’s come-from-behind win at Rutgers to clinch a BCS berth, the 2012 BIG EAST Offensive Player of the Year has exhibited terrific leadership and poise. Everything he does on the football field starts with who he is away from the field.
“From day one, he’s been a great student of the game,” Watson said of Bridgewater. “Because of his understanding of the game and what we do conceptually, he understands football and it goes slow for him. He’s a great decision-maker. He can create in and out of the pocket. He’s the best football player I’ve ever coached. He’s a very talented young man. And he has great character to go along with it.”
With so much talent and ability to go with his outstanding work ethic and football IQ, Bridgewater’s skill-set has allowed the Louisville coaches more flexibility in the way they prepare their game plans. It adds an increased level of responsibility for Bridgewater, but as he has shown so efficiently this season, he is more than capable of handling those duties.
“We put a lot on our quarterback,” Watson explained. “We run a pro-style offense, so he has to make a lot of decisions for us in every aspect of the game. He gets us in the right play at the line of scrimmage many times. He fixes our protection at the line of scrimmage. And he makes pass decisions. Really, he’s a coach on the field. It’s been remarkable for me. I’ve been doing this 30 years and coaching this position for 20 of those 30 and I’ve never had a guy who could do so much so early. He just has a high football intelligence that goes along with his competitiveness. He sees himself succeeding in everything he does, so we put a lot of responsibility on him.”
Florida Defense Defined by Talent, Skill
The Gators have hung their hat on defense this season, limiting the opposition to 283.4 yards of total offense. Florida is stout against the pass as the Gators have registered 19 interceptions this season led by four from Matt Elam. The Gators have allowed just 155 points this season, an average of only 12.9 points per game.
“They have great talent all across the board and they have depth,” Watson said in talking about the Florida defense. “That tends to lead to success and what they do schematically is very good. They can rush four guys. They don’t have to bring a lot of pressure on you because they’re so good up front and they have lock down people on the back end. Their safeties are good coverage players. Their linebackers can cover, so they have every piece defensively that you could ever want.”
Elam Leads the Way for Gators’ Defense
Elam, a junior defensive back from Palm Beach Gardens, leads the Florida defense. The First Team All-American is second on the team with 65 tackles, including a game-high 10 at Tennessee and team-best seven vs. LSU, when he forced a game-changing fumble in the third quarter. He has 10.0 tackles for loss, five pass-breakups and a team-high four interceptions after a pick in Tallahassee in the win over Florida State.
“I’ve watched him play in every one of their games and in those, you see what a great player he is and you appreciate his style of play,” said Watson of Elam. “He’s a very physical player. He can cover. He embodies everything you want in a player at that position. He’s a guy that can wreck a game for you, so we have to account for him. He’s an excellent football player. The staff there at Florida does a great job of using him and putting him in positions to execute for them. He’s come up with several big plays. He does it all and he’s a great player.”
Sunshine state Recruiting Key to Cards’ Improvement
Any coach will tell you that recruiting is the key to the success of a program. And with the Louisville football team’s return to the national spotlight has been the successes on the recruiting trail. Led by head coach Charlie Strong’s experience coaching and recruiting in the talent-rich state of Florida, the Cardinals have welcomed a large number of highly athletic and highly skilled players from the Sunshine State during the last three seasons and their impact on the team’s success is noticeable.
“It’s been huge for us,” Watson said of recruiting in Florida. “Charlie, with his background and with a number of our assistant coaches being from Florida and having experience recruiting the state, there are a lot of strong ties with our staff to the high school coaches and that community of coaches down there. We have 34 players that are from Florida and those kids are the ones that have turned around our program.”
“(Florida) recruited me as a quarterback, but I actually wanted to play wide receiver.” — Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on his prep recruitment by Florida.
“In games like these, you don’t try to put an ‘S’ on your chest or a cape on your back. You just take what they give you.” — Bridgewater on whether his approach changes in a game like the Sugar Bowl.
“Elam is obviously a huge part of their defense. He’s an All-American. He’s in on every single tackle. He’ll be a player that I know Teddy will be watching a lot.” — Center Mario Benavides on the impact of Florida defensive back Matt Elam.
“He’s definitely a players’ coach. When there’s a problem, we can go talk to him. He cares for us as players and he looks out for what’s best for us.” — Running back Jeremy Wright on Cards’ head coach Charlie Strong.