BUILD ON LATE-SEASON SUCCESS
NC State finished off the 2011 regular season by racking up 37 points against Clemson and a 42 point second half explosion against Maryland to secure a bowl bid. In all, the Wolfpack averaged 43.5 points per game over the final two contests which was easily their best back to back performances of the year.
Prior to their final two games, the Pack had averaged just seven points a contest in losses to Florida State and Boston College and a win over UNC.
To beat Louisville, State likely won't have to score 42 points but seven won't get it done, either. Throughout the season, while generally considered a passing offense, the Pack's success has hinged on its ability to run the football. State doesn't have to put up big numbers but they can't become one dimensional against the Cardinals.
For Louisville's part, they play sound, fundamental defense. They try to eliminate big plays and force the opposition to grind the ball across the field. This philosophy has helped them put together the nation's 23rd best unit in total defense while ranking 14th in points allowed at just over 19 points per game.
If State reverts back to the offense of late October and early November then it's likely to be a long day. However, with several weeks to prepare, the Pack should be able to build on some of the success that propelled them into the post season.
TAKE CARE OF THE BALL
Louisville is an odd team in that it has had some of it's worst defensive performances when it came out on the winning side. The Cards gave up just 14 points in a loss to UNC yet yielded 35 in a win over West Virginia.
The common thread in the Cardinal's losses has been their ability to generate turnovers. In their five losses this year Louisville has forced just four turnovers, or less than one per game. In seven wins in 2011, the Cards forced 14 turnovers or two a contest.
Louisville is a team that doesn't score a lot of points so turnovers are a huge part of their game plan. They won't to stop drives and give themselves a short field.
For its part, State has done a pretty good job of protecting the football. The Pack is currently rated fifth in turnover margin and has averaged 1.8 turnovers per game. Should the Wolfpack keep that number down to one or less then they should have a better than average chance of coming out on top.
DO THE LITTLE THINGS
In the majority of bowl games it always seems like one team comes ready to play while the other appears lethargic from bowl week activities. State has to make sure it's not the latter.
A big part of that is making sure they do all the small, mental things that give you a chance to win. This was a common key throughout the latter part of the season for State and it continues in this game.
The Wolfpack has to make sure they take care of the fundamentals first. State has to avoid dropped passes, blown blocking assignments and pre-snap penalties- all issues that are more mental than physical. Forget the fun of getting ready to play in the bowl game.
Instead, the Pack has to be focused and limit the small mistakes that can kill a drive and ultimately your chance to win a game.
NC State Defense vs. Louisville Offense
Priority No. 1 for NC State's defense has to be getting to freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The highly-regarded signal-caller has led Louisville's late-season run by making plays and being extremely efficient. He has limited mistakes and played with a lot of poise.
However, he probably hasn't faced as opportunistic defense as he will face tonight in NC State. The Wolfpack is one of the nation's best at forcing turnovers and sacking the quarterback. That's what their defense is built on.
To win this game, NC State has to be able to get to Bridgewater. If they can sack him and force negative plays, it could potentially rattle his confidence and force those game-changing turnovers that State's defense has used to win games this season.
GET OFF THE FIELD
The Wolfpack has been terrific defensively on third down late in the year, allowing a conversation rate of just 33% over the final four games.
The Pack must continue this trend against the Cardinals, who are just 75th nationally in third-down conversion offense (39.8%).
Having success on first down will be the key to slowing down the Cardinal's attack. State may have to be a little more aggressive than usual here because they can't afford to allow Louisville to dictate the flow of the game when on offense. The Wolfpack has to knock the Cardinals off track and keep them off schedule because Bridgewater is athletic enough to make plays on 3rd and short.
WINNING THE INDIVIDUAL BATTLES
It all starts with stuffing Louisville's rushing attack. The Cardinals are No. 93 nationally in rushing offense, totaling just 122 yards per game on the ground. In fact, they are only No. 104 in total offense, but they are an opportunistic unit that improved over the course of the season. Still, being strong defensively begins with stuffing the run.
If the Pack is able to slow down the run and force Louisville into third and long then that opens the door for NC State's linebackers to get after Teddy Bridgewater. The Cardinals will likely counter by using three-step drops, quick screens and slants to get rid of the ball ahead of the pressure.
The Wolfpack will probably employ some zone blitzes to try and confuse Bridgewater... but will it work? If it doesn't, State is going to have to win the individual battles in the passing game.
Louisville is young at the skill positions and leading receiver Michaelee Harris will miss the game after suffering an injury during bowl workouts. The Pack is likely to play quite a bit of zone against Louisville so making plays on the ball and getting receivers on the ground will be critical.
When the opportunity arises, the NC State defenders have to find a way to win their one-on-one matchups, something they've done with regularity this season.