by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Louisville (7–5) vs. NC State (7–5)
Date: Dec. 27 at 8 p.m.
Location: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
We knew Charlie Strong could recruit, and we knew he could run an outstanding defense. Now, we know the man is a terrific head coach. In his second season at Louisville, Strong guided a team that was predicted by most to finish near the bottom of the Big East to a share of the league title. The Cardinals overcame a slow start — they were 2–4 with home losses to FIU and Marshall after six games — and won five of their final six regular-season games, including their final three on the road. An offense that stagnated early in the year scored 27 points or more in four of the final five games.
NC State, too, played well late in the season — and the Pack beat some quality teams along the way. In a five-week span, Tom O’Brien’s club won at Virginia, shut out rival North Carolina, 13–0, and pounded eventual ACC champ, 37–13. This late-season push quieted rumors about O’Brien’s job security; he lost seven games in each of his first three seasons but is 16–9 since the start of the ’10 campaign.
WHEN LOUISVILLE HAS THE BALL:
Strong handed the offense over to true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in early October. The Cards lost Bridgewater’s first three starts — though he played well statistically — then got on a roll in late October beginning with a win at home vs. Rutgers. Bridgewater’s overall numbers won’t wow you — 1,855 yards passing with 12 TDs and nine INTs — but he did a solid job running the offense and did not throw more than one interception in any of his final eight starts.
The Cardinals used three tailbacks throughout the 2011 season, with Dominique Brown (131 attempts), Vic Anderson (99) and Jeremy Wright (72) all getting significant work at various points. Wright was the only U of L back to have more than 100 yards in any game (108 vs. Rutgers). NC State had trouble stopping the run early in the season but did a much better job late in year, holding North Carolina to three yards, Boston College to 72 and Clemson to 34. It will be important for Louisville to run the ball well to take pressure off of Bridgewater, who will be operating against an NC State defense that led the nation with 24 interceptions.
WHEN NC STATE HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Mike Glennon had a fine season, but he is not Russell Wilson — something that NC State fans were reminded of on a weekly basis. Glennon, a junior, threw for 2,790 yards with 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first full season as the starter. He was forced to carry much of the load because the Pack struggled to get the running game going. With Mustafa Greene out for the year with a foot injury, James Washington emerged as the primary ball-carrier. He had his moments — 131 yards vs. Georgia Tech, 110 vs. UNC — but he averaged a rather ordinary 4.0 yards per carry.
Statistically, Louisville was among the stingiest defensive teams in the nation, allowing only 19.2 points and 327.8 yards per game, but the Cards did not face too many top-flight offenses. The Pack should be able to move the ball.
Louisville struggled in the return game, averaging only 5.2 yards on punt returns and 22.8 yards on kickoff returns. Chris Philpott converted 11-of-16 field goal attempts.
NC State’s T.J. Graham was one of the top special teams weapons in the ACC. He led the league with a 12.1-yard average on punt returns and ranked fifth in kickoff returns at 22.5.
Bowl games are often about motivation, and both teams should be motivated to play well at the Belk Bowl. NC State has to be feeling pretty good about itself after beating Clemson by 24 and rallying from 27 down in the third quarter to beat Maryland in the final two weeks of the season. Louisville has a ton of momentum as well and is well-positioned for future success in the Big East. The talent level is pretty even between these two teams. If Bridgewater can protect the football, the Cardinals have a great opportunity to win a bowl game for the second straight season.
Louisville 27, NC State 20