Teddy Bridgewater wills Cards to title

The man did not practice all week.

He could not take a snap from under center.

He could barely walk.

Teddy Bridgewater was banged up so badly, Louisville coach Charlie Strong had serious doubts about whether he would have his best player available Thursday night against Rutgers, with a Big East title and BCS hopes on the line. During the week, Strong told reporters Bridgewater would play. But when the game began, the star quarterback stood on the sideline next to Strong.

The city of Louisville must have let out a collective gasp.

There would be more to follow.

Because Bridgewater did play. And he put forth one of the guttiest, grittiest, inspiring efforts in recent memory, Willis Reed and Byron Leftwich all rolled into one. Bridgewater willed his team to a 20-17 comeback victory that all but assures the Cardinals a spot in the BCS. For anybody still unconvinced about how truly terrific Teddy B is, I suggest you watch a replay of the game.

Playing with a bad wrist and a bad wheel, he threw for 263 yards and two touchdown passes in three quarters with only eight incompletions, posting his highest quarterback rating in four games. He had his share of misfires -- several of his passes sailed on him, and he threw a critical interception that nearly shifted momentum to the Scarlet Knights.

But you got the feeling with Bridgewater in the game, Louisville would not be denied. The reason seems pretty obvious, especially when you start to examine the stark difference at quarterback between the two teams. Gary Nova is not an elite quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater is. As much as Rutgers was plagued by extremely uncharacteristic special teams miscues that cost it 14 points, the Scarlet Knights had several shots to win.

Nova came up short, throwing an interception with about a minute to go on a clear miscommunication with his intended receiver. Many times this season, folks have wondered whether Nova is the right guy to lead this team. Coaches stuck to an incredibly conservative game plan all year, choosing instead to ground and pound the "Rutgers way." It may have ended up impairing their quarterback's confidence. Nova never looked like a self-assured leader on the field this season. With BCS hopes on the line the past two weeks, Rutgers lost, and Nova came up small.

Bridgewater did not, and that intangible quality has made it so easy for his teammates to play for him, and to rally around him. In an interview earlier this week, Louisville center Mario Benavides told me, "What makes Teddy so special is you don’t normally see people at that position playing through what he played through. That’s not to discredit anybody else. You don’t see that type of demeanor. He’s a throwback kind of player. The first thing he told me when he got hurt last week was, 'Let’s go get it.' He knows what I’ve been through as far as injuries go. He understands that everybody’s hurting and he doesn't want to let us down. It just so happens to be there are more eyes on him. He’s a playmaker. He makes things happen. Having him out there whether he’s hurt or not doesn't make a difference. I know he can do it."

Throughout the game, players across the Big East and even the ACC took to Twitter to weigh in on the way Bridgewater played. Even Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman hopeful Johnny Manziel was following, tweeting: Love the way Teddy Bridgewater is playing tonight. Playing hurt and still trying to will his team through this game #respect.

Bridgewater helped more than his own team, too. Syracuse players gathered at their own football facility to watch the game, knowing their Big East title hopes were on the line. Thanks to Bridgewater, the Orange can call themselves co-Big East champs in their final year in the league.

Let's not forget about cross-state rival Cincinnati. Bridgewater had one of his best games of the season against the Bearcats, throwing for 416 yards in an overtime win. But thanks to Bridgewater, those Bearcats can win a piece of their fourth Big East title in five years with a win over UConn on Saturday. Rutgers, despite the loss, also got a share of its first Big East title.

But Thursday night belonged to Bridgewater. And his performance was not lost on the people who know him best.

In the tunnel on the way to the locker room after the victory, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson pulled Bridgewater in for a hug. Watson held on, clapping his player on the shoulder pad.

"That was awesome," Watson said.

"That was so awesome."