Dismissed by the BCS, Bridgewater, Louisville chasing a perfect season
Despite its lack of national publicity and BCS respect, Louisville is off to a 9-0 start
Sophomore Teddy Bridgewater may be the nation's most underrated quarterback
Bridgewater avoids spotlight when he's off the field, but he's dazzled in 2012 on it
If Teddy Bridgewater is having trouble being recognized as one of the best quarterbacks in America, it may be because it's really difficult to recognize Teddy Bridgewater. When he leaves his dorm room, Louisville's sophomore signal-caller sets his protection, sheathing himself in sweatpants and a hoodie, yanking the hood over his head. Often, it's not even football-issued gear, so no colors or logos betray his identity. There may be earnest well-wishers along his path. All in all, Bridgewater would rather pass.
Occasionally, though, Bridgewater walks around campus with Eli Rogers, his fellow Miami native, high school teammate and friend from his elementary school days. Rogers is well aware of his pal's aversion to public displays of affection. Which is why the receiver abruptly reaches over, tugs the hood off Bridgewater's skull and catches passersby off-guard: Hey, you know this is Teddy Bridgewater? Rogers just wants to see how his friend reacts to being a Teddy, bare.
"Yeah, he kind of hates the popularity contest and all that," Rogers said. "I always mess with him, like, hey, you know you're the quarterback, you can just go and get this if you wanted it. He's like one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, one of the top five quarterbacks in the nation, so people are going to know who he is. He just keeps a low profile, that's all."
That's all, with a measurable trace of frustration, for the unbeaten Cardinals as well. Whether or not national acclaim ever comes to Bridgewater and 9-0 Louisville is the enduring question, as a clinically precise quarterback hovers on the fringes of Heisman chatter and an unblemished team languishes at No. 9 in the latest BCS rankings, behind several one- and two-loss teams.
There are four undefeated national title contenders, and then there is Louisville, a group of players that is perfect but not good enough in the standings. "We try to ignore it as much as we can," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "They haven't said anything to me about it, and I say, hey, don't worry about the rankings and the BCS. We still have three games left to play. If you mess around worrying about the BCS, you take the focus off our football team and you take the focus off the opponent. We have to understand our task at hand."
If it is a moot pursuit of perfection, then the unassuming, 6-foot-3, 207-pound sophomore leading the charge is mostly indifferent. Sunday, when the latest BCS standings were revealed, Bridgewater was in his dorm room lounging with his family. He purposefully watched the NFL that night to avoid the title-chase melodrama, more interested in throws than throes.
A day earlier, he had completed 68 percent of his passes and thrown five touchdowns in a 45-17 rout of Temple. The performance made Bridgewater the No. 5-rated passer in the country, completing 70.43 percent of his attempts overall. That still didn't make him a legitimate candidate in any Heisman straw poll. It also didn't make him upset.
"I don't pay attention to it at all," Bridgewater said. "We're still trying to gain respect throughout the nation. I'm all about this team, having team success. Individual accolades come along when you're having team success, so as long as we continue to win, execute and play hard every weekend, if the individual accolades come, I'll just accept and receive."
His longtime friend, Rogers, suggests Bridgewater is "curious" as to why his name isn't circulating in awards talk. But there is no voice to the complaint. "He's a guy that would rather show than tell," Rogers said. "He's never been a guy to talk and let it be known that he has this and that. He'd just rather go out and prove the world wrong."
That process began by inadvertently proving the Louisville world wrong on his very first collegiate series. Expectant fans chanted his name as Bridgewater took the field midway through the 2011 opener against Murray State. The drive featured two false starts and a delay of game, and it ended with Bridgewater throwing a deep interception on his lone pass of the day.
The crowd booed him. Cardinals quarterback coach Shawn Watson greeted his protégé, then a burgeoning freshman backup, as Bridgewater left the field: We're going to put you back in the saddle, man, Watson said. So saddle up.
"I just took it in a positive way, as motivation," Bridgewater said of the debut, "as I don't want to go through that embarrassment anymore."
To avoid it, Bridgewater honed his grasp of the offense to, literally, near-perfection. Watson presented his charges with a "quarterback orientation book" after winter meetings, a tome that addresses every play in the arsenal. By the time spring practice began, Watson said, Bridgewater "had everything nailed." Bridgewater complemented that with Monday, Wednesday and Friday visits to "Quarterback School," voluntary offseason film sessions with Watson during his down time.
In the spring game, Bridgewater completed 19-of-21 passes -- with one drop and one throwaway. In August camp, Bridgewater threw 535 passes. He completed 443 of them. His "on-target percentage" -- which accounts for drops -- was at 90. "He's a totally different player," said Watson, who is now the offensive coordinator. "He's learned to use all of his resources. He's spreading the ball throughout the entire offense, and that's because he knows how to use every piece of it."
"I have a fuller understanding of this offense, I know where everyone is going to be when the ball is snapped," Bridgewater said. "I just had to grow up. I came in last year thinking, OK, it would be just like high school. You come in, throw the ball around, make a couple plays. But it's different. You have to manage games and get your team into the right play. I just had to learn that the game doesn't revolve around you."
And yet it does. Watson estimates Bridgewater sits at 96 or 97 percent efficiency in making correct checks in 2012, up from around 80 percent as a freshman. Three of Louisville's seven "explosive" runs against Temple last weekend resulted directly from Bridgewater's adjustments. When the quarterback plays mind games like that, it is felt throughout the entire roster. "Doing more has allowed his teammates to believe in him even more," said safety Jermaine Reve, another one of Bridgewater's friends since fourth grade. "Everyone on the team just expects the offense to go out there and score, because we have the capability of doing it."
Louisville's success, in large part, has stemmed from that team-wide belief. When a two-minute drive was needed against Cincinnati, Bridgewater gathered his offense and told them: This is what we do. Louisville scored. When five inches of rain pummeled the Cardinals at Southern Miss, Bridgewater informed his line and receivers it was time to grind one out. He threw just 13 passes. Louisville surged on. When the Cardinals amassed a 29-point halftime lead against North Carolina, Bridgewater demanded everyone treat the game like it was scoreless. The urgency helped offset a furious Tar Heels comeback. Louisville survived.
"He assures them: We're going to do this," Watson said. "And they believe we're going to do this, because Teddy said we're going to do it, and usually he's in the middle of making it all happen."
The worst day of Teddy Bridgewater's life was the day he returned from high school practice and his mother informed him she had breast cancer. He stopped going to practice. He mowed lawns for a few extra dollars. At 14, he decided he needed to give up everything to take care of her. After a couple weeks of this, Rose Murphy called her son into her bedroom and laid it plain: God has given you tremendous talent. Use it.
"She told me about my blessings, and that she's going to continue to fight," Bridgewater said. "As long as she's fighting, she doesn't want me to let her down."
So he learned years ago that there are things he can do nothing about. But what he is doing, and what Louisville is doing in a historic season, is in their hands. The value people attach to it is not. "There's a lot of frustration," Bridgewater said. "But we can't control those things."
"It's getting to the point where it's starting to aggravate us, give us that edge to go out there and show the world what we're really about," Rogers said.
Mostly, though, the player in the middle of it all pulls up a hood to drown out the noise, or sits in his dorm, watching football, playing video games with his fellow Florida expats. Bridgewater will take on all challengers. And when he gets a chance, he usually doesn't disappoint. "I'm pretty much the guy that everyone hates to play," Bridgewater said. "It's just hard to beat me."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. You can follow him at @ChiTribHamilton.