Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater came into Thursday night's season finale against Rutgers with one good arm, one good leg, a conference championship on the line and no idea if he was even going to be able to play.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, their sophomore leader willed himself onto the field against the Scarlet Knights in the de facto Big East championship game despite having a broken wrist and a sprained ankle, and came up huge in a must-win situation. As a result, Louisville (10-2, 5-2) is likely BCS-bound after rallying for a 20-17 victory.
"This is what we set out for at the beginning of the season," Bridgewater said after the win, wearing a gray boot on his left foot and a thick black brace on his right wrist -- the kind of getup that made it hard to believe he had been on the field just moments earlier.
"Our No. 1 goal was to win the Big East and get to a BCS game, and we're just proud and we're enjoying this moment."
Will Stein started the game under center for Louisville, and according to head coach Charlie Strong, the Cardinals were prepared to ride the senior the entire game and only resort to Bridgewater if absolutely necessary. But midway through the first quarter, with his team struggling to sustain drives, Bridgewater took it upon himself to tell Strong he wanted to be inserted into the lineup.
"When you're a competitor, you don't worry about your pain when it's time to go play the game, and he doesn't worry about the pain," Strong said. "He wants to play and he wants his team to win, and they knew he had to play in order for this team to win."
The move came as a surprise to some, considering that Bridgewater didn't participate in a full practice all week after suffering both injuries in a 23-20 loss to UConn last week. After Thursday's game, the quarterback admitted he was feeling about 70 percent coming in.
But 70 percent of Teddy Bridgewater, it seems, is better than 100 percent of most Big East quarterbacks, and from the start of the second quarter on, the game was Bridgewater's to win.
"We were doing a great job early, but we were just shooting ourselves in the foot and not finishing drives," Bridgewater said. "I was just ready, and I had that feeling deep down inside."
After Louisville's first three possessions ended with two punts and a turnover on downs, Bridgewater led the Cards on an 11-play, 61-yard drive on his first drive, and John Wallace's 20-yard field goal put Louisville on the board. However, two huge offensive plays by Rutgers -- an 85-yard touchdown pass on their first offensive play of the game and a 68-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter -- gave the Scarlet Knights (9-3, 5-2) a 14-3 lead at the half.
Rutgers nearly sealed the game by taking a 21-3 lead early in the third quarter, but a penalty for having an illegal receiver downfield negated a brilliant touchdown off of a fake field goal and knocked the Scarlet Knights out of field-goal range. The call gave Louisville a stay of execution of sorts, and Bridgewater made the most of his team's new life.
Following the Rutgers punt, Bridgewater led the Cardinals 90 yards downfield for a touchdown to close the gap to 14-10. After recovering a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, Louisville scored on the first play of the next drive, taking a 17-14 lead on a perfectly thrown Bridgewater 20-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker.
"That's a tremendous momentum swing in the game in their favor," first-year Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "I need to find a way to swing it back, and I didn't do that. That's completely on me."
In the fourth quarter, Bridgewater threw for 73 more yards, running his total for the game up to 263 yards on 20-of-28 passing, and Wallace's 29-yard field goal with 1:41 left in the game proved to be the difference.
Even without a full compliment of plays -- Bridgewater's ankle left him unable to run the ball or take snaps from under center, making him an easy target for the Rutgers defense -- Bridgewater found a way to gut out the win, and the effort wasn't lost on his teammates.
"He's the toughest quarterback in the nation," Cardinals linebacker Preston Brown said. "We always believe in him, that he'll come out and make big plays."
Added offensive lineman Alex Kupper: "His legacy at the University of Louisville keeps building and building, and he's only halfway through. He's an unbelievable player, the way he fights. When you're playing next to him, if you do anything less, it's shame on you."
The win moved Louisville into a four-way tie for first place in the Big East, but the Cardinals should get the league's BCS bid when the final BCS standings are released on Sunday -- meaning Rutgers, which earlier this week announced a 2014 move to the Big Ten, is likely headed to Orlando, Fla., for the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Assuming Louisville gets the Big East nod, the Cardinals, which, earlier this week, announced they would be moving to the ACC in 2014, will likely face future conference-mate Florida State in the Orange Bowl, but could also end up in the Sugar Bowl if Kent State receives an automatic BCS bid.
It's not the undefeated season Strong had in mind for his team when it was 9-0, but after nearly letting the season slip away over the last two weeks, it was the sweetest ending the Cardinals could have hoped for.
"I wanted this season to finish off the right way," Strong said. "With a loss, I think it would have left a bad taste in our mouths because we didn't finish. ... I (told them to) turn a good season into a great season, and that's what we were able to do."
And they have a quarterback who gave an arm and a leg for the sake of his team to thank.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .