Observations From the Game: Belk Bowl

NC State entered its game with Louisville on Tuesday riding high after going 5-2 over the last seven weeks to become bowl eligible. While the Pack built a sizable lead, they needed several big plays to hold off the Cardinals en route to a 31-24 win. Pack Pride takes a look back at the Wolfpack's second consecutive bowl win.

NC State entered its game with Louisville on Tuesday riding high after going 5-2 over the last seven weeks to become bowl eligible. While the Pack built a sizable lead, they needed several big plays to hold off the Cardinals en route to a 31-24 win. Pack Pride takes a look back at the Wolfpack's second consecutive bowl win.

In a nutshell

It's been a while since NC State played in a game with so many twists and turns. At times the Pack appeared poised to completely blow Louisville out. But then a mistake here, a penalty there and all of a sudden the Wolfpack was fighting for its life.

State was solid offensively in the first half but generally ineffective in the second half. The defense was solid throughout despite being put in terrible position due to special team's breakdowns.

In the end, it wasn't pretty but the Pack made just enough plays to come away with the win and put an exclamation point on a season that many considered dead in early October.

Something that worked

Defense...NC State's defensive effort wasn't dominant by any stretch against Louisville. However, they made plays and more importantly, made those plays at critical times. They stuffed the Cardinals on two key fourth downs and intercepted Louisville on another to basically end the game. There were five sacks, 12 tackles for loss and an interception returned for a touchdown.

When the Pack did give up points, it was usually after being put in an impossible spot due to special team's breakdowns. P Wil Baumann's fumble of a snap put the Cards on State's five yard line. A fake punt by Louisville facing a fourth and six put the Cardinals on State's 18 yard line. Both plays resulted in touchdowns. Beyond that State was solid. Sure, they gave up yards and first downs but Louisville was never able to consistently drive the length of the field for points.

For a unit that was decimated by injuries in the early part of the season, Tuesday's win had to feel especially sweet.

Something that didn't

Mistakes...it seemed at times like NC State was its own worst enemy. There were penalties. In fact, it seemed that parts of the offensive line were getting a different snap count than the rest. There was a fumble by an offensive lineman, interceptions, dropped passes, a fake punt, a dropped punt snap, an onside kick and missed tackles. In all honesty, this was probably the most error-filled game that State has played all year. The fact that the Wolfpack was able to come away with the win despite all the mistakes is remarkable.

Wolfpack nation gets it

Traveling out of town two days after Christmas isn't the ideal set up for a bowl game but State fans have shown their loyalty to Wolfpack football time and again and Tuesday was no different. The Pack faithful had Panther's Stadium rocking and it was as impressive on TV as it was live. State has now put together impressive fan followings to Birmingham, Orlando and Charlotte over the last five years. That could certainly continue to play in State's favor when bowl bids are extended in the future.

Player of the game

Audie Cole...many pegged Mike Glennon as player of the game and he certainly played a key role in State's win. However Audie Cole was instrumental from start to finish and his play was absolutely crucial. Playing in his final game in a Wolfpack uniform, Cole saved one of his best efforts for last.

He would finish up with 10 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks. He made a huge stop with Louisville facing a fourth and two. Beyond that Cole did a tremendous job in helping slow down the Cardinals run game and force them in to obvious passing downs.

I recall interviewing Cole when he committed to State. He was a quarterback by trade but never questioned his future as a linebacker for the Wolfpack. It's hard to believe the strides he made over the years. The Pack doesn't lose a lot on defense next year but filling Cole's shoes will be no easy chore.

David Amerson

Let's be real- if LSU's Morris Claiborne played at NC State with the stats he put up in 2011, he would've never even been invited to ESPN's award's show. We don't know if Amerson used the Thorpe award snub as motivation on Tuesday night but he certainly played like it. With two picks on Tuesday, Amerson's season total of 13 is better than 72 FBS teams. Over the years we've seen incomparable stellar seasons from the likes of Philip Rivers, Torry Holt and Levar Fisher. It is unlikely that we'll ever witness another year like Amerson has had in 2011.

The Wentz Effect

Losing any starter is a big deal but no one could've predicted the effect Camden Wentz's injury would have on the NC State offense. Wayne Crawford came in and immediately had some issues snapping the ball. Cameron Fordham took his place and fortunately, at least for the Pack, State was able to get two touchdowns. But even so, the timing along the offensive line never seemed right and that appeared to be the main culprit behind several false start penalties. There also appeared to be issues with Glennon getting the snap and that certainly seemed to play some role in the Pack failing on a crucial fourth down late in the game. The good news for State is it doesn't appear that Wentz's injury was that serious.

Coach's try to one up each other

Charlie Strong's decision to kick an onside kick down by seven with roughly four minutes to go and all their timeouts was a head scratcher. Not to be outdone, Tom O'Brien made an equally questionable call by going for it on fourth and two from their own 33 when the Pack easily could've punted the ball inside the 20. State was stuffed on the play and Louisville took over. In the end the play proved to be a non-factor. However, had the Wolfpack ultimately lost this game, State's decision to go for it would have been a huge issue.

Three plays that mattered

1. When Davis Amerson returned a Teddy Bridgewater pass 65 yards for a touchdown, it put the Pack up by three touchdowns deep into the third quarter and seemed like icing on the cake at the time. Who could've guessed that it would actually turn out to be the winning score for NC State.

2. With the lead whittled to seven, Brandan Bishop's onside kick recovery was a huge play for NC State. With all the momentum on their side, if Louisville gets that kick then there's a very good chance they get the game-tying score.

3. With Louisville on State's 47 yard line and moving, Dontae Johnson's 11 yard sack of Bridgewater on third down was crucial. It forced Louisville to burn their last timeout and run a Hail Mary play that was intercepted by Amerson to end the game.

Headed Forward

When the Pack sat at 2-3 after a home loss to Georgia Tech there were plenty that wrote State off. Slowly but surely State began to get the pieces back, particularly along the defensive line and it showed in the results. Ironically, an argument could be made that the Wolfpack's turnaround really started in the second half of the loss to Florida State. It was at that point that the defense started to play to its potential. The Wolfpack would go 4-1 from that point forward and a season considered lost in early October finished up just one win off of 2010's total.

Tom O'Brien has always been a coach that has downplayed expectations but he has mentioned on several occasions, most recently after Tuesday's game, that State is returning the bulk of its stars in 2011. That statement by its nature is going to ramp up excitement among the fan base over the next eight months and with that will come expectations.

The Wolfpack offense doesn't lose anyone that could be considered irreplaceable. All of the specialists on special teams will return while Tobais Palmer and Bryan Underwood should be solid choices to replace T.J. Graham as a returner. The biggest loss on defense will be the graduation of Audie Cole while the biggest question mark will be the status of Terrell Manning. The Pack desperately needs him to return next year. Otherwise, there's going to be a huge youth movement at linebacker and given that position's importance in the Wolfpack's scheme, that's probably not a good thing. Assuming Manning does return, the defense looks stout with Thomas Teal, Brian Slay and TY McGill returning to take over at defensive tackle for Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy.

As it was in 2011, the wild card is injuries. If the Pack stays healthy then the table is set for a huge year. One thing is for sure, Wolfpack fans will travel en masse to Atlanta to see it kick off.

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