Louisville's Gay earns redemption in Orange Bowl win

MIAMI -- It sure looked like William Gay screwed up again.

Wake Forest drove down the field with time dwindling away in Tuesday night's FedEx Orange Bowl, and quarterback Riley Skinner looked like he was about to go Boise State on the Louisville Cardinals. His tight end, Zac Selmon, went vertical on a hitch route, got some space and spun to look back at his quarterback. Skinner's eyes grew wide. Over on the Louisville sideline, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt's eyes also widened, but for a completely different reason. Gay, the team's top cover guy, was supposed to go over the top with the tight end instead of biting on the hitch.

Skinner let the ball go, and it sailed right at the wide-open target. The crowd grew quiet.

Gay might be best known for jumping offside right before Jeremy Ito's shanked field goal in the Cards' loss to then-No. 15 Rutgers. A flag dropped, and so did the senior cornerback's heart. Ito made good on the mulligan, and that loss is why Louisville is here in Florida instead of watching the Orange Bowl from a team hotel in Arizona.

Whitt doesn't deny the effects on Gay: "It hurt him."

Gay ran onto the field for that play with one thought in mind: "We need a block." Coaches, knowing his excitability, told him: "Make sure to take a deep breath." Gay did, but he jumped too soon anyway. The cameras zoomed in on him, and it seemed like Gay was the only person in the world.

Whitt threw an arm around Gay and told him the game shouldn't have gotten to that point in the first place. But it still stung. "I tried to have a short memory," Gay said.

Truth is, Gay has dealt with much worse. He grew up in the projects of Tallahassee, and his grandmother rescued him by taking him to a nearby suburb. That was after Gay's mother, Carolyn Hall, was shot and killed. William was 8 years old.

"It taught me to take life seriously," Gay said. "I took all the responsibility I could."

Gay was the first defensive player Bobby Petrino called when he got the Louisville job. He became the first in his family to graduate from college, and he did it in three-and-a-half years. He even has a graduate degree in sports administration.

And that's the ironic part: Gay is about the least likely player in the nation to make such a publicized mistake. "He is such a student of the game," Whitt said. "He's a coach on the field."

But Gay is also the most likely player to recover from such a painful moment. He made a huge interception against South Florida in the game after that fateful loss to Rutgers. And Tuesday night, once again on national television, Gay had that same thought in his head: "We need a turnover."

And with the score tied at 10 late in the third quarter and Wake Forest driving for what would be a devastating score, Gay reached out and stripped the football from Deacons fullback Rich Belton at the Louisville 13. Junior linebacker Malik Jackson recovered the ball, and although the Cards weren't able to convert the turnover into points, they gained the momentum. Louisville outscored Wake Forest 14-3 from that point on to win its first BCS bowl game in the program's history, 24-13.

That brings us back to Skinner's fourth-quarter pass, zipping through the air at a wide-open tight end.

Turned out "Big Play Will Gay" planned it all the way. He pretended to stay on the hitch route so that Skinner would think he had an open receiver. "I baited him," Gay said after the game. "His eyes got big and I sunk. He's young, and I knew he'd get excited."

Gay closed the gap and made the pick. Game over. Whitt was waiting for him on the sideline. The coach waited until Gay sat down on the bench to whisper in his ear: "Guess you're smarter than I am."

Gay isn't the first defensive back to cost Louisville a perfect season. Kerry Rhodes dropped an interception in 2004 that might have given the Cardinals their first undefeated season since 1947. That drop happened, naturally, in Miami, against the third-ranked Hurricanes. Rhodes, as any Jets fan knows, recovered. So will Gay.

"This is just the start for him," Whitt said.

Now the Orange Bowl champion Cards can say proudly what they might not have admitted a day ago:

They would never have been in this position if it weren't for William Gay.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.