PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Teddy Bridgewater couldn’t take a snap from under center because of a broken wrist, and had a hitch in his step because of a sore ankle.
The Louisville quarterback was too banged-up to start, but more than well enough to finish off Rutgers and send the Cardinals to the Bowl Championship Series.
Bridgewater came off the bench to throw two second-half touchdown passes, and John Wallace kicked a 29-yard field goal with 1:41 left to give Louisville a 20-17 victory on Thursday night in what was essentially the Big East championship game.
In a game between one team headed to the Big Ten and another bound for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East handed out its second-to-last BCS bid to a school that entered the league during its first massive rebuild in 2005 and watched its athletic program blossom.
The Cardinals will be going to the BCS for the second time. Either the Orange or Sugar Bowl will be the destination.
“We dropped two the last couple weeks. But for us to go on the road and win the championship, it’s so special,” said third-year coach Charlie Strong, who has quickly gotten Louisville back on track after the Cardinals hit a rough patch following their only other BCS bid in 2006.
“I’m just so happy for us to get a 10-win season, go win the conference title and get us to a BCS bowl.”
Louisville (10-2, 5-2) will share this Big East title with Rutgers (9-3, 5-2), Syracuse and possibly even Cincinnati, but those guys only get a banner. The Cardinals get the ticket to the big game. The BCS standings will be used to break the tie and there is no doubt Louisville, with the best overall record in the conference, will be on top.
Bridgewater didn’t start a week after breaking his left wrist and spraining his right ankle in a loss to Connecticut.
“He’s the toughest quarterback in the nation,” Louisville linebacker Preston Brown said.
Strong went with senior Will Stein as the starter because Bridgewater could only take snaps from the shotgun. But it quickly became apparent Louisville could not win without their star quarterback.
“Once I saw that we weren’t finishing drives, I was just ready,” Bridgewater said. “I had a good feeling deep down inside.”
He entered for the first time against in the second quarter and finished 20 for 28 for 263 yards and threw a pair of TD passes in the third quarter to wipe out a 14-3 deficit.
“He came up to me midway through the first quarter. I said to warm up,” Strong said. “I gave our medical staff a game ball because they were able to get him ready.”
Cardinals linebacker James Burgess picked off a pass that bounced off Timmy Wright’s hands with 3:53 left in the fourth quarter in Rutgers territory, and Bridgewater hit Andrell Smith on a slant for 30 yards to put Louisville in field goal range. Wallace booted through the short kick to give Louisville a three-point lead.
“They have a tremendous playmaker at the quarterback position,” first-year Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “We just weren’t able to match him in the end.”
Rutgers’ last chance ended when Gary Nova threw deep, but his receiver stopped short. Terrell Floyd made an over the shoulder interception with 1:06 left. Nova bent over and grabbed his helmet in disgust.
The Scarlet Knights, the only team that has played in the Big East since it started playing football in 1991, probably will have only one more shot to win the conference for the first time before moving to the Big Ten.
Louisville can add one of the biggest wins in school history to an already memorable week for the school, which was in Conference USA just eight years ago. On Wednesday, Louisville announced it was joining the ACC after at least one more season in the Big East.
There is some question whether Strong will be around that long. He denied on Wednesday a report that he had interviewed for the Auburn job, and it’s been speculated that Arkansas and Tennessee are interested, too.
“(Strong) told us he’s not going anywhere, don’t listen to the rumors,” receiver Damian Copeland said.
Rutgers was up 14-3 at half after Nova hooked up with his big receivers for two long TD passes — an 85-yarder to Brandon Coleman and a 68-yard play by Mark Harrison. Nova finished 13 for 28 for 284 yards.
The Scarlet Knights were poised for another big play in the third quarter when a fake field goal turned into a touchdown pass from holder J.T. Tartacoff to D.C. Jefferson. It would have made the score 21-3, but an illegal man down field penalty wiped out the play and Rutgers punted from the Louisville 31.
Everything changed from there.
Bridgewater and the Cardinals put together a 90-yard drive that took 14 plays and nearly eight minutes and cut the lead to 14-10 when the quarterback flipped a pass to Jeremy Wright, who scooted 14 yards for a touchdown.
The Cardinals needed only 16 more seconds to take the lead.
Burgess stuck kick returner Jeremy Deering in the chest, forcing a fumble recovered by Calvin Pryor. Bridgewater went right to work, floating a perfect deep ball to DeVante Parker for a 20-yard touchdown pass.
Just like that, it was 17-14 and Scarlet Knights fans fell silent.
“It’s kind of a 21-point swing in a very short amount of time, and we were never able to swing the momentum back, and that’s my job,” Flood said.
Bridgewater had the Cardinals on the move again in the fourth quarter when a high pass bounced off the hands of Eli Rogers and into the arms of Rutgers’ Lorenzo Waters, who returned the interception to the Louisville 42.
The Scarlet Knights turned the turnover into Nick Borgese’s tying 38-yard field goal with 7:48 left.
Fans waved white towels, and AC/DC blared from the loud speakers. But that was the last big play Rutgers could muster. The Scarlet Knights are likely headed to the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, still searching for their first BCS bid.
“I think we have a football team right now that’s hurting,” Flood said.
Louisville ended up tossing oranges in the air when it was over and exchanging high-fives with a small group of its fans in a corner of the stadium.
The Cardinals might end up in New Orleans instead of Miami, depending on how the rest of championship weekend plays out. Surely, they will be fine with either.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap