Will Gardner took the first step toward emerging from Teddy Bridgewater's shadow Monday night, and it was a big one.
Shaking off a couple of fumbles, Gardner remained cool -- just as he'd been taught to do by Bridgewater -- and bounced back from his mistakes to direct Louisville to a 31-13 victory over Miami that came in front of a record crowd of 55,428 in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and a national TV audience.
And, oh yes, it also marked the Cardinals' long-awaited debut in the Atlantic Coast Conference and coach Bobby Petrino's return.
"It's exciting, especially getting a win against an opponent like Miami is fun to get things rolling in the right direction," Gardner said. "It's a new conference, new team, new everything, so getting this win is really special."
Gardner spent two years as Bridgewater's understudy and he showed he had been an attentive student. He made the right decisions for the most part, completed the throws he had to make, directed two long touchdown drives and responded well to adversity.
When it was over, the redshirt sophomore from Douglas, Ga., had completed 20-of-28 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions.
He got UofL on the scoreboard first with a 12-play, 93-yard drive capped by a two-yard curl pass to freshman tight end Charles Standberry.
"That was fun," Gardner said. "We got to throwing the ball around, completion after completion, guys getting wide open, good pass protection, so that was really fun and exciting."
So was the 14-play, 67-yard drive he directed that started midway through the fourth quarter and ended when he hit tight end Gerald Christian on a crossing route to wrap up the win.
"I think he did a good job," Petrino said. "He had a really nice drive there in the first quarter. He executed and went straight down the field."
Gardner's first collegiate start got off to a shaky beginning. His first throw was low, his second one behind Christian, the intended receiver. But on the Cardinals' touchdown drive minutes later, he was a perfect 5-for-5, including a sideline 21-yarder to Eli Rogers, who finished with five receptions for a game-high 65 yards.
"Coach told me to just to settle down, get the first series under my belt, get things going," Gardner said. "The one bad pass was just a miscommunication between me and Gerald and that's on my part because I've got to sit on it longer and make good decisions. He did a good job with the route and later on in the game we connected on it a lot."
Gardner denied that he had any butterflies, even though that could have been expected in such a pressure-packed environment and when his last extensive action had come three years earlier as a junior in high school. (He missed his senior season with a torn ACL).
"It was fun," he said. "Getting that first start under your belt, getting it out of the way was really fun. Not really nerves, just a lot of excitement and adrenalin really. We prepared so well and Coach Petrino puts so much pressure on you, it's fun to get out there and play football again. I was ready to get out there and get things started. I feel like we had really good preparation, so the nerves were really not there."
However, Gardner's debut wasn't without a few mishaps. He was sacked four times and lost two fumbles inside UofL's 10-yard line. But the Cards' defense prevented the turnovers from being catastrophic, limiting Miami to a pair of field goals.
"The defense played their butts off," Gardner said. "They helped me out a lot. They had some big saves. I give them all the credit; they played really good."
As for his mindset after the miscues, he said, "I put it behind me and moved forward because the game wasn't over. Other than the turnovers, I'm pretty pleased, but there's always room to improve."
Said Petrino: "He had a couple mistakes by not taking care of the football. You always wonder, should we have hit him in practice? He has had three years since he's been hit. We need to get him to get the ball against his body, keep his elbows in and not carry it the way he did when they pressured him.
"A lot of the hits were caused by making the wrong call when we didn't block the right guy. But you talk about poise and competitive spirit, the way he came out and played after those mistakes, I'm very proud of him."
So was Dominique Brown, who took frequent handoffs from Gardner while rushing for a career-high 143 yards on 33 carries.
"People don't understand that it's a lot of pressure being a quarterback," said Brown, Gardner's roommate. "He held his own for this being his first start."
"This is the first time in awhile I've actually taken some shots and it felt good to get back out there and take them," Gardner said. "Of course, getting hit's not the best feeling in the world, but getting going and getting into a rhythm and getting your feet back under you was really good. I've got to keep two hands on the ball at all times, hang onto it and make smarter decisions about if I'm getting pressured, try to throw it out of bounds."
Gardner's shining moment came at the end. With a 24-13 lead heading into the final 9 1/2 minutes, the Cards needed to play keep-away and that's exactly what they did. They erased any Miami comeback hopes by holding onto the football for nearly eight minutes, as Gardner methodically moved his team 67 yards down the field.
With Brown doing most of the heavy lifting, Gardner attempted just three passes among the 14 plays, including a 10-yarder to Christian for a touchdown with 1:43 left. The other two were a nine-yarder to fullback Lamar Atkins and 12 yards to Christian.
"Oh, that was big," Gardner said. "It was a big team drive. We ran it, ran it, ran it. Just a big drive to end the game right there and a big touchdown -- guy getting wide open."
Said Petrino: "We grinded it out in the fourth quarter and that's a great way to win a game. To be able to take the ball and drive it for 14 plays and take time off the clock, I'm just proud of our players."