Rutgers trailed eighth-ranked Louisville 17-10 and coach Kyle Flood liked his team's chances with 10 minutes remaining.
The Scarlet Knights (4-2, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) just couldn't take advantage, making key turnovers against the Cardinals (6-0, 2-0) in a 24-10 defeat Thursday night.
Cornerback Anthony Cioffi had just sacked Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, forcing a fumble that teammate David Milewski recovered to keep Rutgers within a touchdown.
"We had the ball down 7, on the road in a hostile environment against a top-10 football team — I would take that any time," Flood said. "I had complete confidence at that point that we were going to make the plays to win the game and we didn't do that."
Gary Nova's deep pass down was intercepted three plays later by Calvin Pryor, the first of two fourth-quarter pickoffs. Rutgers again had a chance to tie following Louisville's missed 45-yard field goal, but Nova was intercepted for the fourth and final time by Terell Floyd with 5:29 left to play.
Nova completed 19 of 36 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown.
Bridgewater's second touchdown pass of the night with 2:27 remaining killed Rutgers' hope of coming back.
"We had plenty of opportunities and we didn't take advantage of them," Nova said. "Credit Louisville's defense. They gave a lot of different looks, switched it up a lot and did a lot of different things. We never really got settled into the game."
Credit Louisville's defense, indeed. The Scarlet Knights came in averaging 423 yards a game and had scored 28 points or more — including two outbursts of more than 50 points — in each of its first five games. Rutgers finished with 240 total yards and only 12 yards rushing on 27 attempts. The Scarlet Knights entered the night averaging 180 on the ground.
The Cardinals registered a season-high eight sacks — the most since recording nine at Rutgers on Nov. 26, 2010 — but Flood would rather have seen Nova take a few more instead of sending errant throws into the hands of Louisville defenders.
"It's hard to talk about Gary's play really without talking about the protection," Flood said. "Just looking at it, eight sacks in the game and he probably could have taken two or three others without putting the ball in jeopardy. I think the biggest issue we have right now is protecting him better."
Louisville's defensive performance offset Bridgewater's off night before 26 scouts from 20 NFL teams. The junior completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw an interception along with the fumble.
But it took pickoffs by Pryor and Floyd to help preserve a lead that was tenuous in the second half.
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 decided late.
Louisville scored the first 17 points and led 17-7 at halftime. The Scarlet Knights managed just 1 yard rushing and Nova was intercepted twice.
After Louisville drove 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 runs by Bridgewater followed by Perry's 23-yarder on a delay that led to his 1-yard TD dive.
Louisville seemed to be in gear but its lead wasn't totally safe against a Rutgers team that has made a habit of comebacks this season. The Scarlet Knights finally got on the scoreboard late in the second quarter as J.T. Tartacoff hit wide-open tight end Tyler Kroft down the middle for 26 yards to the 1. Kroft scored on a 1-yard pass from Nova on the next play.