It was just before noon on Thanksgiving Day when N.C. State football coach Tom O'Brien was spotted jogging near Carter-Finley Stadium.
Told that it was a holiday, that he should be home eating turkey, O'Brien smiled and replied, "It's a work day. We've got a game to win. We want to go to a bowl."
Two days later, the Pack won in Carter-Finley, and in dramatic fashion. Trailing Maryland 41-14 midway through the third quarter, the Wolfpack reeled off 42 unanswered points for a 56-41 victory that was N.C. State's seventh of the season and qualified it for a bowl.
The Pack will face Louisville in the 2011 Belk Bowl on Dec. 27 (8 p.m.) in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium. That gives State (7-5, 4-4 ACC) a shot at an eighth win, and in a game televised by ESPN.
"Certainly we're excited about the opportunity to continue our season," O'Brien said Monday. "At a point, probably seven games ago, it looked like we may not be on anyone's (bowl) radar.
"But we finally started getting healthy, got our guys back and we said that's what we've got to do. ...The character of this football team was revealed during that seven-game stretch when we had to win five."
A strong finish
N.C. State topped West Virginia 23-7 last year in the Champs Sports Bowl, capping a 9-4 season. But star quarterback Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin to play his final year of college football and left the Pack sitting at 2-3 in October.
State's strong finishing kick gave O'Brien his third bowl appearance in five seasons, and it may have been the biggest of the three.
"It is important that we establish some continuity in terms of going to bowls and winning bowls," athletics director Debbie Yow said Monday. "I'm very pleased that we rebounded the second half of the season, and the way that we did it in winning five of our last seven, especially after the injuries early on.
"That said, if you ask coach O'Brien, if you ask me ... we'd both say that this is not the end-all. We want to become a championship football program. We have the pieces in place here - the facilities, the fan support, the support of the school, the budget. It's all there. And that's where we want to go."
Yow was given a game ball by the football team after the win over the Terrapins. Given her many years as athletics director at Maryland, it seemed fitting.
Asked if receiving the game ball from the players and coaches was personally satisfying, Yow said, "I've shown them my watch and that I would like to replace it with an ACC championship watch. And I'm waiting on them to do what needs to be done for us to order that watch.
"So they knew that wasn't going to happen this year and I think the next best thing in their mind was to win the bowl game. So it's really about them. We made it to the bowl under some trying circumstances."
O'Brien said bowl practice would begin Dec. 16 and open practices would be held Dec. 17 (2:30 p.m.) and Dec. 18 (2:45 p.m.). The team will leave for Charlotte on Dec. 22.
Yow said N.C. State would sell out its bowl ticket allotment of 12,500 and likely more. Bowl director Will Webb noted Monday that State sold 23,000 tickets in 2005, when the Pack beat South Florida 14-0 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Louisville rebounded from a 2-4 start - losing at North Carolina 14-7 on Oct. 8 - to finish 7-5 under second-year coach Charlie Strong. The Cards were 5-2 in the Big East, sharing the conference title with Cincinnati and West Virginia.
"They found their stride," O'Brien said.
The perks of a bowl are many, O'Brien said. The seniors are rewarded with another game. The extra practices help underclassmen develop. It boosts recruiting.
"Everybody wants to go places that win football games and play on national TV ... and want to play in bowl games," O'Brien said.
A loss to Maryland would have left the Pack 6-6, including victories over Liberty and South Alabama, two Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams. But that seventh win changed everything.
"Coming from a 6-6, .500 season, to going to a winning season and the potential of getting an eighth win definitely changes a lot of the perspective of the whole year," quarterback Mike Glennon said.