- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- That Florida's offense struggled, especially in the passing game, in a 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl isn't really news. That has been happening all season.
But the way the Gators' defense got shredded in front of 54,178 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome? That was stunning.
UF's defense was the reason the Gators were 11-1 and playing in the Sugar Bowl. It was one of the nation's best. Opponents were managing just 12.9 points and 96.6 yards rushing per game. Opposing quarterbacks -- a list that included Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Georgia's Aaron Murray -- had thrown just five touchdown passes.
But that wasn't what showed up on Wednesday night.
Florida gave up 336 yards -- the second-most it has allowed this season -- and couldn't stop Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The sophomore from Miami completed 20 of 32 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, and he was completing those passes to wide open receivers.
He also was torching Florida on third down. The Gators came into the game ranked fourth nationally in third-down defense (28 percent), but the Cardinals converted 9 of 14 third downs.
Everything the Gators did well all season was a mess in the Sugar Bowl.
"Got outcoached and outplayed," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "That's what I told the football team. That's the bottom line. You go out and you get beat, and that's what happened."
The third-ranked Gators (11-2) weren't just beaten, though. They were embarrassed. Receivers were running wide open in the middle of the field. Defensive backs blew coverages and left guys alone in the flat. Cornerbacks who had been solid in man coverage all season were twisted and turned around and couldn't find the football.
The Gators played more zone coverage than they have in any game this season, and they looked lost. It didn't help that they were without starting weakside linebacker Jelani Jenkins (broken foot) or that they lost cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy in the second half with what Muschamp said was a bruised right thigh. The Gators have dealt with injuries all season but apparently weren't able to overcome that against the Cardinals (11-2).
"It's totally unacceptable," safety Josh Evans said. "We didn't do that all season."
The end result was that a defense that thrived on forcing turnovers (29 entering the game) managed to produce just one: an interception on a tipped pass.
"You can't win with one turnover," safety Matt Elam said. "Teddy's a great player. We had to get the ball off him. If we can't get the ball off him and let him throw it around, it's going to be a problem, and that was the problem."
Now there are questions about this defense heading into 2013. With Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd announcing after the game they were forgoing their senior seasons for the NFL draft, the Gators will lose five starters (NT Omar Hunter, LB Jon Bostic and LB Lerentee McCray are seniors) and could potentially lose another if junior end Dominique Easley decides to leave early.
The starters who are returning -- especially corners Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins -- didn't play well on the biggest stage of the season. That has to leave doubts about whether the defense can play at an elite level next season and carry the team if the offense continues to struggle.
"This is not the way we want to finish off, but it happened and we can't take it back," Easley said.
Muschamp, however, is confident that Wednesday's performance was an aberration and will have no bearing on next season's defense.
"We're building something here," he said. "We're building a program. It was an unfortunate setback and it's one game. We still won 11 games and we still did a lot of very positive things this season. Obviously, this is a sour day and a sour note, and I apologize to our fans and the university.
"But we've had a great year and we're moving this thing forward at a rapid pace. Very disappointed with the outcome today, but very positive as we move forward."
4hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy