Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Belk Bowl: NC State vs. Louisville
By Heather Dinich
It was a November to remember for coach Tom O'Brien and his Wolfpack, who entered last month with a 4-4 record and needed to win three of their last four to become bowl eligible. Nobody could have predicted the wild finish, but the Pack went 3-1 last month to earn its place in Charlotte. Here's a quick preview of the matchup against Louisville:
WHO TO WATCH: Cornerback David Amerson. He didn’t have one pick in 640 snaps last year as a true freshman, but this year has been a breakout season after his move from boundary to field corner. Amerson has tied the ACC’s single-season record and is the nation’s leader in interceptions with 11. That’s four more than any other player in 2011, more than 63 FBS teams, and the most by any individual since Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard had 11 in 14 games in 2002.
WHAT TO WATCH: Special teams. Both Louisville and NC State have had difference-makers in the return games. Louisville’s opponents have returned 12 punts for a total of five net yards in 12 games and is No. 2 in the country in punt return defense. NC State receiver T.J. Graham is No. 12 in the country in punt returns, and NC State is No. 22 overall with 11.44 yards. The Cardinals beat West Virginia with the help of an 82-yard touchdown return of a blocked field goal, and beat Connecticut with help from a 100-yard kickoff return. NC State was also the only FBS school in the country this year that relied upon true freshmen at punter, placekicker and longsnapper this year, the first time in O'Brien's 36 years of coaching he's had a true freshman lineup in the kicking game.
WHY TO WATCH: Fast finishes. Both of these teams scraped and clawed to become bowl eligible this year. Odds are neither program is going to take this opportunity lightly. Louisville got off to a 2-4 start, and NC State was 2-3. Louisville closed out the season with a 5-1 record and a share of its first Big East title since 2006. NC State had to win its final two games to become bowl eligible and pulled off a shocking upset of then-No. 7 Clemson before mustering the greatest comeback in school history with a 56-41 win over Maryland. Both of these teams have finally hit their stride and have peaked just in time for bowl season.
PREDICTION: NC State 28, Louisville 21: Both quarterbacks will need to get better protection than they have for most of the season, and both teams have seen their defenses improve, but NC State has done a tremendous job this year of forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes, and Teddy Bridgewater will find that out quickly. The difference will be NC State’s front seven on defense.