Louisville's start to the season went largely under the radar due to the competition. The Cardinals games were hard to find on Saturdays, with a Sunday afternoon opener against Ohio and in-state battle against first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops as the most notable matchups on the early season schedule.
Thursday night was different. ESPN reported that more than 20 teams were represented by 26 NFL scouts, mostly interested in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater's face dominated the promotion for this game; a rematch of the 20-17 victory in 2012 that featured his gutsy performance with a broken wrist and a sprained ankle. Eyes across the country turned to Papa John's Stadium with a set of expectations for the BCS-hopeful Cardinals and their star quarterback. Those expectations, for the most part, were not met.
Louisville's offense failed to score for 36 minutes and 48 seconds of game time, allowing Rutgers more than enough opportunities to take a cut out of the early 17-0 lead. Luckily, the Cardinals defense, one of the more underrated aspects of this 2013 team, held the lead intact.
Most impressive was the Cardinals pass rush. Led by the likes of Marcus Smith, Lorenzo Mauldin and Roy Philon, Charlie Strong might have his best defensive line since arriving at Louisville. They held Rutgers' running backs to just 60 yards on 17 carries and sacked Gary Nova a season-high eight times. That relentless pass rush also helped force errant passes from Nova, four of which landed in the hands of Louisville defenders.
Bridgewater did complete 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw a costly interception in the end zone in the second quarter. After that interception, the Louisville offense proceeded to fumble twice near midfield and miss two field goals (one was blocked) when they did get into the red zone. Louisville's defense didn't just do their part, they carried the team for more than half the game.
So what's the takeaway? Bridgewater didn't need a dominant performance against Rutgers, but Louisville, as a team, did. Less than a year ago the Cardinals were 9-0 before dropping a pair of Big East games to Syracuse and UConn. They were head-scratching losses, and ones that suggested that while Louisville was still a year away from making a splash on the national scene.
Bridgewater's NFL Draft stock is set, the Cardinals' BCS stock is not. Thursday night's performance gave the naysayers plenty of material, and only raised the bar for next week's contest against a good UCF team. If Louisville again fails to dominate against a respectable opponent, it will be a hard reputation to shake come late November.