It’s rare that the opening play of a football game sets the tone for the other 59 minutes and 45 seconds of playing time. And if it’s isn’t a kickoff return, it’s incredibly rare that the first play from scrimmage sets the tone. In last night’s Sugar Bowl, the Louisville Cardinals upset win over the third-ranked Florida Gators was set in motion on the first play from scrimmage.
On the play, Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel threw a pass intended for Andre Debose. Debose couldn’t get to it and inadvertently tipped the ball right to Terrell Floyd of the Cardinals. Floyd made the interception and returned it for a touchdown, putting the Cardinals ahead 7-0 after only fifteen seconds.
The reason I believe this set the tone is that for every big upset to happen, there has to be a catalyst to make that team truly believe they can do it. No matter how confident a team might be in their own abilities, to hear for a month that you are no match for your opponent, that you’re going to get stomped, slaughter, beaten up, etc., it gets inside their heads whether they know it or not. But if they can see something on the field, whether one play or many, that make them see with their own eyes the possibilities, then that team could be on their way to a big upset. The catalyst for a big upset doesn’t always have to be something flashy or instant like Floyd’s INT return. Sometimes it’s that team putting together a drive right way, or consistently put together drives in the opening half, or some other break (return TD, turnover, many sacks, etc.) during the first half.
That break, no matter what it is, gives confidence to a team looking to score a big upset. You could see it in how the Cardinals played from that moment on that they had extreme confidence in themselves and their ability to beat the number three team in the country. They may have been confident going in, but even that confidence was kicked up a notch by Floyd’s play. After that, the Cardinals played calm, they played confident, and it made things go a whole lot smoother for them.
This is by no means a justification that Floyd’s one play made this game. Not a chance. There were many plays that made this upset happen for the Cardinals. Remember, they screwed up plenty of scoring opportunities in the second half, but were never hurt by any. Why? Because their defense came up huge with sacks and turnovers. They also had the benefit of the Gators’ onside kick attempt to begin the second half going horribly wrong for them. And there was DeVante Parker‘s dazzling footwork while pulling in a 15-yard touchdown late in the first half.
What Floyd’s interception ended up being was the spark that ignited an inferno. It wasn’t the most destructive part of the blaze, but it was instant and it marked the very beginning of the destruction. The 33-23 final score doesn’t even justify the Cardinals’ performance and the beating they put on the Gators in such a big game.