NC State will return home on Saturday night as it looks to bounce back against an ACC Atlantic division foe that did just that last week. The Wolfpack's time in the polls came to an end with a hard-fought 31-30 road loss to a Miami team that was just 2-4 coming in. For the season, NC State is 5-2 and still controls its own destiny in the ACC (2-1).
Louisville is 4-3 (2-2 ACC) and snapped a two-game losing streak last time out with a solid 28-14 home victory over Boston College. With losses to Virginia and Wake Forest by a combined four points on their résumé, the Cardinals are likely out of contention for the ACC Atlantic Division title, but they can take a big step toward a winning season and bowl eligibility with an upset win in Raleigh.
Home field has not been an advantage in recent meetings, as the visiting team has won the last two contests. The teams did not meet last season, but the Cardinals won in Raleigh two years ago 34-20. Louisville holds the 7-3 edge all-time against the Wolfpack. Only two of the previous 10 matchups have been decided by fewer than 12 points.
Louisville at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: NC State -6.5
When Louisville Has the Ball
For Louisville, there is no question that the offense goes as quarterback Malik Cunningham does. Cunningham has mostly eliminated his turnover issues and enters Saturday's contest as the Cardinals' leading passer and rusher. In addition to 1,684 passing yards and eight touchdowns, Cunningham has rushed for 480 yards and a nation-leading 13 touchdowns. Cunningham rushed for a season-high 133 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 28-14 win over Boston College. Complementing Cunningham on the ground are Jalen Mitchell and Hassan Hall. At 221 pounds, Mitchell is a punishing runner while Hall is more of a speed back with big-play ability.
In the passing game, Cunningham has several reliable targets headlined by tight end and leading receiver Marshon Ford. Jordan Watkins has been solid as a possession receiver, while Tyler Harrell and Ahmari Huggins-Bruce provide big-play ability. One of the most pleasant surprises this season has been the offensive line. Headlined by center Cole Bentley, Louisville averages more than five yards per carry and has yielded the fewest sacks in the ACC.
This week, Louisville will be facing a defense that allows the fewest yards per game in the ACC and the second-fewest points in NC State. The Wolfpack, however, had a difficult time in last week's loss to Miami, allowing 420 yards and a season-high 31 points. NC State allows just 3.1 yards per carry on the ground. Florida State transfer Cory Durden and Davin Vann are each a load in the middle of the defensive line.
Vann and linebacker Vi Jones are tied for the team lead with 2.5 sacks apiece. Despite losing standout Payton Wilson early in the season, the linebacker position has still been a bright spot for the Wolfpack. Drake Thomas leads the team with 53 tackles and two interceptions. That position, however, took another significant hit with the loss of Isaiah Moore for the season. Safety Tanner Ingle headlines the secondary for the Wolfpack, and that may the key to their success. Mississippi State's Will Rogers and Miami redshirt freshman Tyler Van Dyke had big days throwing the ball in NC State's two losses this season.
When NC State Has the Ball
The Wolfpack offense hasn't been overly impressive statistically, but there is a lot of talent at the skill positions. Quarterback Devin Leary has 1,844 passing yards with 17 touchdowns but, perhaps more importantly, has thrown just two interceptions. Leary has a big arm and great command of this offense, but when they are their best, they're able to run the ball. They'll look to get Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. going on Saturday night.
Those two have combined for 957 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the season. Both are also capable receivers out of the backfield. Out wide, Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas, and Devin Carter form a solid trio. Although Carter had some critical drops last week, Emezie and Carter are fairly complete wide receivers with each possessing large 6-foot-3 frames. Emezie leads the team with 452 receiving yards. Thomas is a slot receiver who knows how to move the chains and find the end zone. His six touchdown grabs lead the Wolfpack and rank fifth in the ACC. Like Louisville, NC State has also been good in pass protection this season, allowing just 11 sacks.
Defensively, Louisville has not been very good this season but is coming off perhaps its best performance on that side of the ball. The 14 points allowed to Boston College last week was the fewest against FBS competition as the Eagles managed just 266 yards of offense and turned the ball over three times. The linebacker position has also been the strength of Louisville's defense. Yasir Abdullah ranks third in the ACC with six sacks while C.J. Avery and Jack Fagot are the top two tacklers.
Abdullah is the leading sack man, but the Cardinals do a pretty good job of generating pressure as a whole. Freshman Ashton Gillotte has been a pleasant surprise with three sacks. In the secondary, Louisville has had its struggles. The Cardinals allow the second-most passing yards in the ACC but do have talent. Kenderick Duncan has been excellent in helping stop the run, while Kei'Trel Clark is the best cover man and has a team-leading three interceptions. Trey Franklin also has two picks so far this season.
Coming off a rough defensive performance, NC State will have its hands full with Cunningham and the Louisville offensive. The problem for the Cardinals, however, is that NC State is balanced on that side of the ball and has a lot of playmakers. This game taking place in Raleigh also will be an advantage. When it is all said and done, the Wolfpack should be able to make just enough stops and run the ball well enough to keep Cunningham off the field.
Prediction: NC State 31, Louisville 28
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.