Bowl Blitz: Upward Trending Louisville & NC State Meet in Belk Bowl


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Louisville and NC State each journeyed to the postseason in similar fashion. Both had successful 2010 campaigns, but offseason upheaval brought on questions. Early in the season, it appeared neither was equipped to address those questions, but by season’s end, both are peaking. Their respective developments are textbook fiction.

Think of a college football season like a film or novel, with three acts. In Act One, characters are introduced and a problem arises in a turning point. NC State’s story began before the season opener, when head coach Tom O’Brien opted to name Mike Glennon the starter over Russell Wilson in spring football, a reward for Glennon’s daily presence. As Wilson led Wisconsin’s Russellin’ near the top of the polls early on, NCSU floundered. The Pack’s turning point was a Thursday night shellacking against Cincinnati.

Louisville lost two offensive stars from its 2010 Beef-O-Brady’s Bowl win, quarterback Adam Froman and running back Bilal Powell. Reshaping the offense without them posed a challenge that coordinator Mike Sanford seemed unprepared for. A 17-13 loss to Marshall began a three-game slide in which the Cardinals scored just 36 points, and cost Sanford his job.

Both programs could have understandably waved their white flags before Halloween, but in their second act retooled for the climax. Since Oct. 21, the Pack and Cardinals are a combined 9-3 with the opportunity to ride out in the sunset of this final act.

UL’s reimaging began after Sanford’s dismissal, with the reins of the offense turned firmly over to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The freshman initially shared snaps with Will Stein, but as it so often does the two-quarterback system went awry. The Cardinals managed a combined 98 points through those initial six games, just 12 more than the nation’s most prolific scoring offense (Houston) piled on in its first two outings.

Shawn Watson assumed coordinating duties for the Oct. 15 game vs. Cincinnati, not coincidentally UL’s penultimate defeat for the entire 2011 campaign. The turnaround was gradual — UL failed to break 20 its first games under Watson — but by November, the Cardinals were flying high. All three of their 30-plus point performances came after Halloween, and in their final four-game stretch, the Cards racked up 120.

Conversely, the defense never struggled. Head coach Charlie Strong continued to demonstrate what made him arguably the single best coordinator when he was at Florida, and an immediate success as the top guy at UL. The Cardinals allowed just 230 points the entire campaign. Only once did a UL opponent break the 30-point threshold, and ironically that was a 38-35 Cardinal victory over Dana Holgorsen’s uptempo West Virginia team.

UL opponents manage yards: nearly 330 per game. But those yards don’t translate to points, a product largely created by one of the most effective red zone defenses in college football. The Cardinals allowed touchdowns less than 80 percent of the time opposing offenses passed the 20. Add to that the putrid 9-16 field goal kicking UL held its opponents to, and it’s easy to understand the math 3934 = 230.

NC State scored more than Louisville’s 230 point allowance in just its wins. NCSU was at its best when producing big points, racking up 250 in seven victories (an average of over 35 PPG) to just 86 points in five losses (17.2 PPG). The Pack capped off its run of positive offensive performances with one of the season’s more memorable outpouring.

When NCSU last played a month ago vs. Maryland, the Terrapins built a 41-14 lead in the third quarter. But the ensuing 20-plus minutes became a microcosm of both teams seasons as the Pack roared back to score the next 42 points. Spurred on either by O’Brien, or the boos of the Carter-Finley Stadium crowd, NCSU’s response should be remembered as one of this season’s top moments.

It was a dramatic way to clinch bowl eligibility, and allowed Glennon to alleviate some of the criticism sent his way. Three of his five touchdown strikes came in the second half deluge and elevated his final season total to 28. Glennon finished the season with 2790 yards as well, and by Thanksgiving was among the ACC’s most productive quarterbacks.

NCSU is well-balanced in its approach. Glennon passed 420 times, the exact same amount of carriers Pack rushers combined for. At the head of that list is James Washington, the sole NCSU ball carrier to score multiple rushing touchdowns (7). The Pack is best when Washington is productive, having gone 5-1 when he gains 80 or more yards. He also adds a dynamic to the passing game, tying T.J. Graham for the most receptions (39). Ironically though, Washington is one of just three of the 14 targets Glennon found who did not score a touchdown.

Glennon does an effective job spreading the wealth. Eleven different receivers scored touchdowns, and eight of those were good for multiple touchdowns. Graham’s five led the bunch. Glennon’s ability to share the football will prevent UL from keying exclusively on Graham, but the speedy receiver does set a tone both on offense and special teams. He’s a dangerous returner, averaging 22.5 on kickoffs and 12.1 on punts with a touchdown.

Both defenses are likely to key on the passing game. In the NCSU secondary is the most dangerous defensive back this season, David Amerson. Amerson uses his lengthy, 6-foot-3 frame to get to balls like he was a big receiver. His 11 interceptions led the nation and garnered him Walter Camp First Team All-American honors.

Bridgewater was effective, completing two-thirds of all his attempts, but was intercepted nine times in 243 attempts. It’s doubtful he will want to test Amerson too often.

The Cardinal defense and a heavily rush-predicated offense translated into a ball control style. UL didn’t run the ball particularly well in translating to points or yards: tailback Victor Anderson carried just 99 times for 478 yards, and top overall rusher Dominique Brown is officially listed at quarterback (though he’s been used exclusively as a rusher).

Meanwhile Bridgewater, rated the nation’s No. 6 dual threat quarterback recruit last winter, only went for 95 yards on 80 attempts. That doesn’t mean the Pack defense will slump off him when he stands in the shotgun, however — his three rushing touchdowns are tied for second most on the team.