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October 11, 2013LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On Thursday night, Rutgers came into Louisville faced with the task of playing a more experienced team with more proven talent. Standing before the Scarlet Knights and once again blocking the road to a BCS bowl was the No.8-ranked Cardinals. Rutgers was a 19-point underdog at kickoff, yet there plenty of chances to pull off the upset.
The Scarlet Knights played Louisville to a 3-0 first quarter despite gaining only 24 yards on 12 plays. To start the second quarter, Rutgers had a 1st and 10 on the Louisville 33-yard line with a real chance to come away with a score.
But that chance faded when RU quarterback Gary Nova threw his first of four interceptions.
"It was on me. All the interceptions were on me," Nova said after the game.
A few plays later, Louisville was in the endzone after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater exposed a very inexperienced Rutgers secondary. Not long after that, the Cardinals found paydirt again and went up 17-0. It looked as though this one may be heading for a blowout.
But Rutgers would not quit. They fought back and used a 26-yard completeion on a fake field goal from J.T. Tartocoff to Tyler Kroft to set up a one-yard touchdown reception to Kroft one play later.
"They played it like we thought they would, we executed great and Kroft was wide open," Tartacoff said of the fake field goal. "We have been working on it all week. It's something we felt we could run."
Louisville retaliated by moving the ball downfield but Bridgewater ended the chance to put any more points on the board in the first half when he was intercepted in the endzone by Jeremy Deering.
"I thought we were fortunate enough to get out of the fist half at 17-7," said head coach Kyle Flood. "I was really optimistic in the locker room because we hadn't really played that well in the first half."
Rutgers' problems ran deeper than its two interceptions from Nova and combined 17 rushing yards by its two-headed tailback of Savon Huggins and Justin Goodwin.
The offensive line was struggling. Nova was sacked three times while being constantly harassed by a tenacious Louisville pass rush.
"It's hard to talk about Gary's play without talking about the protection," Flood said. "No question, there are some decisions Gary would like to have back again, sometimes maybe just to take the ball and take the sack. We certainly took enough of them, that's for sure."
Flood mixed and matched that unit throughout the game, switching out Taj Alexander and Andre Civil at right tackle while also swapping Chris Muller and Antwan Lowery at right guard for awhile.
But none of those formulas seemed to be work. The offensive line wound up giving up eight sacks. In order for Rutgers to win, it would need a stellar performance from Nova in the face of a torrent pass rush.
That scenario didn't play out.
"It was tough. They were switching it up and doing some things defensively. We just didn't execute," Nova said. "...It's on me. It's my job to fix this thing and get it right."
Six games into his junior season and the opportunity to play on a stage like this for a potential BCS bowl bid are quickly fading for Nova. But his opposition was not living up to the lofty building he carried into the game.
Bridgewater missed his fair share of throws and squandered quite a few opportunities to score points, particularly in the second half.
"We left about 17 points on the field. We should have easily put up more than 40 points tonight," Bridgewater said.
Bridgewater was set to put Louisville up by two touchdowns with just over 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter and seemingly seal Rutgers' fate. On a 2nd and two from the RU 5-yard line, Bridgewater dropped back and was clobbered from his blind side by true freshman cornerback Anthony Cioffi.
The ball came loose and Rutgers now had new life as David Milewski recovered the ball on the RU 21-yard line.
"I felt it was time for us to punch it in [after that]," Cioffi said.
A fear suddenly seemed to filter through Papa John's Stadium. Louisville had not been threatened like this through its first five games of the season. Here was a prime opportunity for Rutgers to take advantage of what was a shift in momentum.
"We had the ball down seven on the road in a hostile environment against a top 10 football team," Flood said. "I would take that any time and I had complete confidence at that point that we were going to make the plays."
Nova moved the team to midfield following a 10-yard completion to Ruhann Peele. But the offensive line faltered again. This time, it came in the form of a 15-yard illegal blocking penalty on Kaleb Johnson. So instead of a 1st and 10 at midfield, Rutgers faced a 1st and 25 at its own 26-yard line.
Then, a recurring theme played out. Nova was intercepted two plays later and a surge of momentum swung in Louisville's favor.
A missed Louisville field goal gave Rutgers another chance but the same story played out. Louisville's pass rush proved to be too much for Nova, who ended all comeback hopes with his fourth interception that led to a Cardinal touchdown and a 24-10 margin.
And that is how it would end with Nova sacked eight times, intercepted four times and the RU defense yielding 461 yards.
But the Scarlet Knights were in it almost until the very end.
"There is no lack of fight in this football team. We're disappointed about this outcome but we are excited to get back to work as a program," Flood said.