Louisville free safety Calvin Pryor and cornerback Terell Floyd prepare hard to make big plays in key moments. They had a couple of huge ones against stubborn Rutgers.
The defensive backs intercepted passes on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter, the second by Floyd to set up Teddy Bridgewater's 6-yard touchdown pass that clinched the Cardinals' 24-10 victory over Rutgers on Thursday night.
Defense was the story for the eighth-ranked Cardinals (6-0, 2-0 American Athletic Conference), who had four interceptions, sacked Gary Nova eight times and held Rutgers to 12 yards rushing. Pryor led Louisville's stifling effort with 14 tackles and the first late-game interception in holding the Scarlet Knights to 240 yards.
"We knew it was going to be aggressive, so we knew we had to cover on the back down," Pryor said. "We had to execute our defense, and that's what we did tonight."
The Cardinals needed that performance to offset Bridgewater's off night. The junior completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw an interception and fumbled early in the fourth quarter on the last of two sacks.
Rutgers (4-2, 1-1) couldn't take advantage of those miscues in seeing its four-game winning streak end and losing a fourth straight time to the Cardinals, who temporarily took control of first place in the AAC.
Nova completed 19 of 36 passes for 202 yards.
"There are certain things you have to do in games like this because your margin of error is so small," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "We didn't do those things this evening."
Damian Copeland had career highs of eight receptions and 115 yards, and Senorise Perry ran for 104 yards and a TD on 13 carries in Louisville's 461-yard effort.
But it took pickoffs by Pryor and Floyd to help preserve the lead.
Bridgewater didn't have one of his sharper games before 55,168 and 26 scouts from 20 NFL teams looking at a likely first-round draft choice in April. He overthrew his receivers several times — including one 5 yards out of bounds to an open Copeland in the fourth quarter that would have put the Cardinals inside the 5 — and had an interception in the end zone.
"It was a decent performance," Bridgewater said. "I left a couple of throws on the field. I battled adversity, but it was a decent performance. It was a great team effort, the guys laid it all on the line."
Floyd's interception gave Bridgewater a chance to close strong, and he hit Eli Rogers for the clinching touchdown to send a huge crowd home happy in the final meeting between the schools as conference members. Louisville is headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, while Rutgers is bound for the Big Ten.
The series finale had Cardinals coach Charlie Strong lamenting the end of a highly competitive rivalry. But it didn't change the bottom line of getting the upper hand in a conference race that figures to involve both schools. And typical of recent meetings, it was settled late.
But Louisville took charge with a 17-7 halftime lead as it balanced running and passing to score on three of their first four possessions while the defense held the Scarlet Knights to just 1 yard rushing and intercepted Nova twice.
That became a pattern for the Cardinals, who seemed to get meaner with each offensive hiccup.
"When our offense struggles we just want to go out there do our best and get the ball back for them," said defensive end Marcus Smith, who had three sacks.
After driving 65 yards for John Wallace's 24-yard field goal on its first possession, James Burgess returned an interception 39 yards to set up Bridgewater's 34-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Kai De La Cruz two plays later for a 10-0 lead.
Louisville's next scoring drive featured two 12-yard Bridgewater runs followed by Perry's 23-yarder on a delay that led to his 1-yard TD dive.
Louisville seemed to be in gear on that score, but its lead wasn't totally safe against a Rutgers team that has made a habit of comebacks this season. And the Scarlet Knights finally got on the scoreboard late in the second quarter as Nova's hit wide-open tight end Tyler Kroft down the middle for 26 yards to the 1. Kroft's 1-yard TD on the next play was just as easy.
Everything after that was hard for the Scarlet Knights.