ACC bowl season rolls right along this week, with the conference’s second game in as many days. The featured matchup for this preview? Another too-close-to-call contest, this time between the NC State Wolfpack and the Big East‘s Louisville Cardinals in the Belk Bowl.
Bowl Game: Belk Bowl
Location: Charlotte, NC
First Year: 2002 (as Continental Tire Bowl)
2011 Participants: North Carolina State Wolfpack (7-5) vs. Louisville Cardinals (7-5)
Last Meeting: 2007, a 29-10 road win by Louisville
As most observers know by now, NC State truly struggled to get here — needing seven wins this season in order to qualify for the postseason after playing two FCS squads. Somehow, they won three of their last four (including a tremendous 27-point comeback versus Maryland and a huge upset of Clemson) and qualified in the very last week. So at least we know they can compete when called upon. However, what of the Woflpack’s overall performance? Both the defense and offense were merely average this season, while the running game was ranked among the 15-worst in the country. The saving grace? Quarterback Mike Glennon, who led the team’s ferocious come-from-behind victory versus the Terps. His 28 passing scores on the season also don’t tell the full story, however they give a hint as to where this team’s motor lies. Four of the Pack’s losses came in games where Glennon threw two touchdowns or less — an ominous sign coming up against a good pass-rush.
Like NC State, Louisville started off slow, before catching fire in the second half of the year. At just 2-4, the team looked listless and uninspired, with an offense averaging around 15 points per game. Then suddenly, something clicked. Freshman Teddy Bridgewater stepped in at quarterback, the team started actually scoring points and moving the ball, and a previously disappointing campaign almost resulted in a BCS bid for the Cardinals. And while Bridgewater surely deserves some of the credit here, the real props should be awarded to Louisville’s defense. Ranked 14th overall in points allowed (19.2 per game), they were a force defending both run and pass schemes, and only allowed one team to top 30 points in a game all year. Though the total season numbers won’t give this away, Louisville was probably one of the scariest opponents on teams’ schedules come the last five weeks of the season.
As mentioned earlier, NC State’s biggest problem is its inability to run the ball — something that is sure to crush the Wolfpack in this matchup. Though the Cardinals can’t score points themselves, consider the following: Three Louisville defenders recorded 80 or more tackles in 2011. Four players had four or more sacks. The team defended 42 passes, intercepted nine, forced 11 fumbles and even blocked four kicks. As well-regarded as Glennon is on this site, if he’s the only weapon in the State arsenal to go up against what I’ve described above it’s tough to see them winning this game. Sure, he could go all-world like he did in the Maryland game, or the Clemson game. But can the team count on that? Unfortunately, they’ll have to if they want a win here. Prediction: Louisville 28, NC State 21