The Belk Bowl - Louisville vs. N.C. State
Charlotte, NC - December 27, 2011 - 8:00 pm (ESPN).
With the Christmas holiday now passed, Big East fans can look finally look forward to conference play in basketball, and bowl matchupsin football. With no Big East team in this year's Beef O'Brady's Bowl, the first Big East bowl game doesn't come until December 27th with the Louisville Cardinals (7-5) facing off against ACC foe N.C. State (7-5). The Belk Bowl is one of two bowl matchups between Big East and ACCteams with West Virginia facing Clemson in the Orange Bowl as well. This will be the first time the two schools have met since 2007, when Louisville traveled to Raleigh and beat the Wolfpack 29-10. The Cardinals are 3-0 all time against N.C. State.
Louisville 7-5 (5-2)
N.C. State 7-5 (4-4)
In studying up for this game, it is striking how similar these two are. Their similarities are so strong, it is difficult to look at the two teams on paper and get any sense for which team has an advantage heading into the game. Both teams struggled mightily through the firts half of the season before making strides in the middle, then finished extremely well to earn some momentum heading into the bowl game and hopefully the offseason. Louisville suffered embarrassing home losses to FIU and Marshall before making a coaching change at offensive coordinator, and then proceeded to win five of its last seven games and win a share of the Big East title. N.C. State suffered a handful of blowout losses to Cincinnati and Florida State, but rallied to win three of its last four, including an impressive win over Clemson and a furious rally to beat Maryland and become bowl eligible. In their final ten games, Louisville and N.C. State finished a combined 7-3, with wins over their respective conference's BCS representative.
N.C. State won seven games this season on the strength of its passing game and its defense's ability to force turnovers. Quarterback Mike Glennon, in his first year as the starter, passed for 2790 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. The Wolfpack passing game has had no choice but to be effective since the running game has been downright awful at times. The Wolfpack average just 108 yards per game on the ground (107th nationally) and three times this year were held under 50 yards rushing (Cincinnati, Florida State, and Boston College). With such an unreliable offense, the Wolfpack has found a way to win by forcing a whopping 36 turnovers this season. Only Oklahoma State forced more. Cornerback David Amerson led the nation in interceptions with 11 and fellow defensive backfield mate Brandan Bishop chipped in another five. As a team, N.C. State led the nation in passes intercepted with 24 as 7 different defenders picked off passes this season.
In much the same fashion, Louisville struggled mightily offensively before finally settling into a groove that saw them score 27 points or more in four of its final five games. After trying to slowly introduce him into the offense, Teddy Bridgewater took over the quarterback position full time when junior Will Stein went down with an injury against Kentucky in week three. Bridgewater never relinquished the job and finished as the Big East's Newcomer Of The Year, throwing for 1,855 yards, 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. As Bridgewater grew comfortable as the starter, the Cardinals coaching staff opened up the playbook to more and more downfield passing and the efforts showed in the increased production from the passing game.
Still, Charlie Strong will tell you that the key to the offense's improvement was the offensive line's growth which keyed a tremendous surge in rushing production. While Louisville finished the season averaging just 121.92 rushing yards per game, the Cardinals averaged 161 yards per game in the final six games of the season, and incidentally went 5-1 in those games. Defensively, the Cardinals have been remarkably young in the secondary, but the front seven has been stout against the run. Injuries plagued the defensive line late in the year, so several true freshmen saw playing time (sometimes in positions other than their typical ones).
The Belk Bowl will most likely come down to which team's passing game performs best against the other team's secondary. Louisville has played a bevy of underclassmen at the corner and safety positions both and at times has been susceptible to the pass. That's good news for a Wolfpack team that relies on Mike Glennon's arm and only runs the ball enough to try and keep teams honest. Louisville's passing game is different in that it has come as an outgrowth of the improved rushing game. In key moments against Syracuse, Rutgers, and West Virginia, Bridgewater hit big plays in the passing game off of play action passes because the running game had done its job. Will Bridgewater be able to avoid turning over the ball to the nation's best ball-hawking secondary? If so, he'll have to do it without Michaelee Harris, his best wide receiver, who is out of the game with a knee injury. The Cardinals have rotated in several receivers throughout the season, so Harris will be missed but there is talent to work with in freshmen Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker as well as senior tight end Josh Chichester.
Bothdefenses have their strengths, and both offenses have shown the tendency to disappear at the most inopportune of times. N.C. State's offense is not the type that typically gives the Cardinals trouble. With a stationary quarterback and no real option style plays in the offense, the Cardinals will likely come after Glennon early and often. On defense, N.C. State doesn't get a lot of production from its front four and will likewise bring pressure from all over. It's no surprise that it's a defensive back, Earl Wolff, that leads the team in tackles. With Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Central Michigan, and Maryland all able to get 200 yards on the ground against N.C. State, fans should not be surprised to see Louisville try and establish its three-headed running back tandem of Victor Anderson, Jeremy Wright, and Dominique Brown early to set up the big plays in the passing game. If it can't, Louisville will be forced to be one-dimensional and that plays right into the hands of the Wolfpack secondary.
Expect a low-scoring, somewhat boring game where both teams try and feel the other one out and play cautiously early on before opening things up later. Louisville has played better this season on the road than at home, and with a crowd that is expected to be 75% N.C. State fans, that might actually be a benefit to Louisville. Louisville has avoided being blown out in its five losses, while N.C. State lost to a brutal Boston College team late in the season and was dominated by Cincinnati and Florida State. Even at 7-5, two of its wins came against FCS teams (Liberty and S. Alabama).
Look for a close Louisville win, call it 20-13.
For more coverage of the Big East's bowl season, check out our Bowl games section