Everything was going Louisville’s way. After taking a 14-7 lead in to halftime, the Cardinals stormed out to a commanding 28-7 lead midway through the third quarter. But Central Florida put together a 31-7 run from that point on and snapped Louisville’s undefeated season with a thrilling, down-to-the-wire 38-35 victory.
Louisville took 28-7 lead when a James Quick picked up a botched snap on a Central Florida punt and returned it for a touchdown a couple of minutes after Dominique Brown‘s 20-yard touchdown run sparked a wild second half. Central Florida rallied to tie the game late in the third quarter, with Storm Johnson getting in from the one-yard line an scored on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Blake Bortles just minutes later. William Stanback added a 12-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds left in the third quarter as the Knights seized momentum in the game and started to wear down Louisville.
Central Florida took their first lead of the game midway through the fourth quarter when Shawn Moffitt kicked a 34-yard field goal to cap a time-consuming 10-play drive spanning 52 yards in a little over five minutes of play. With the fate of the game, season and perhaps a shot at a national championship on the line, Teddy Bridgewater responded by driving the Cardinals 88 yards in nine plays for a touchdown an the lead. Brown’s 15-yard line down the left sideline showed great foot work and balance and seemed to give Louisville a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. But with three minutes still on the clock and timeouts to spare, it proved to be too much time left for George O’Leary‘s Knights.
Bortles was methodic in guiding Central Florida down field and showed great poise and composure. The Knights strung together a patient 11-play drive for 75 yards capped by a two-yard touchdown, and game-winning, pass to Jeff Godfrey for his third catch of the night. There would be no more important catch in the game, because Louisville’s final second desperation Hail Mary fell incomplete in the end zone.
As the pigskin fell to the ground in the end zone, the visions of a crystal ball may have shattered with it. The loss undoubtedly removes Louisville from the BCS championship picture, barring a most-bizarre sequence of events around the country moving forward. The scenario for Louisville to make a BCS title run left little with regard to margin of error. The Cardinals had to run the table in the regular season to even be in the conversation at the end of the season largely due to the national perception of the strength of The American. Louisville may still have a shot to reach a BCS bowl game of course, and they may still be the team to beat in the conference, but now they are chasing Central Florida.
Perhaps Central Florida has already taken on the role of the top program in The American as well. The Knights have scored road wins at Penn State and Louisville this season and they gave South Carolina a very respectable fight. There may not be a team in the conference that can boats the profile Central Florida has put together. This win should bring Central Florida back in to the top 25 rankings on Sunday. The focus can now officially transition to Central Florida’s path to their first BCS bowl berth, which is now coming in to focus.
The champion of The American will receive an automatic berth in the BCS bowl line-up, although there is no direct bowl tie-in. The remaining schedule does feature some tricky spots against Rutgers (4-2) and undefeated Houston (5-0), although Central Florida will get both of those conference foes at home in Orlando. The combined record of Central Florida’s remaining opponents is 12-21. UCF gets Rutgers and Houston at home.
But what about Bridgewater’s Heisman campaign? Had Louisville held on to win the game, Bridgewater would have had his finest Heisman moment of the year while driving Louisville down field in the fourth quarter for the win. Bridgewater ended his night with 341 yards and two touchdowns, but both touchdowns came in the first half. With the loss, Bridgewater will likely take a hit in the Heisman straw polls among voters, but we’ll leave that to our own Heisman pundit to worry about.