CHARLOTTE — N.C. State finished with a flourish Tuesday night, ending its football season with a dramatic 31-24 win against Louisville in the Belk Bowl.
The Wolfpack clawed its way to a 31-10 lead and then quelled a late Louisville rally for N.C. State's eighth win of the year.
"I'm as proud of this team as any I've been around," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien proclaimed.
The win was accomplished in front of a sea of red, although that was partly due to the fact that Louisville and the Wolfpack share almost identical school colors. The attendance was announced at 58,427 at Bank of America Stadium. And about 50,000 fans actually showed up and stuck it out through 20 mph wind gusts and a game-time temperature of 40 degrees.
Those who did were treated to a contest full of big plays. The game featured a successful onside kick, a 37-yard run on a fake punt, a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown and touchdown passes of 35 and 68 yards - and that was just in the first three quarters.
The interception return and the two long scoring passes all were courtesy of N.C. State, as the Wolfpack (8-5) burned Louisville with team speed on several occasions. The most remarkable of the plays was the 65-yard interception return by cornerback David Amerson, the national leader in interceptions, who yanked the ball away from a receiver and then threaded his way through the entire Louisville offense for a touchdown that pushed N.C. State to a 31-10 lead in the third quarter.
O'Brien said it was one of the best interception returns he had ever seen.
That seemed like it would be enough, and ultimately it was. Louisville got to 31-24 and had the ball once more in the final 90 seconds, but Amerson's second interception of the night clinched the victory.
N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon had a fine night, with three touchdown passes, 264 passing yards and only one bad throw on a deep ball that got intercepted. Glennon threw two scoring passes to T.J. Graham and another to Tobais Palmer, shrewdly managing the game and winning the most valuable player award.
The attendance was more than 17,000 above the 41,122 who came to this bowl game a year ago, when South Florida beat Clemson. Both N.C. State and Louisville entered the game at 7-5 and had gone on good runs toward the end of the year to get to Charlotte, where the Belk Bowl (which used to be the Meineke Car Care Bowl and before that was the Continental Tire Bowl) awaited.
Glennon and Louisville freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took turns leading their teams up and down the field for much of the game, with Louisville slicing the N.C. State margin to 31-24 on a short Bridgewater pass to Josh Bellamy with 3 minutes, 55 seconds left. N.C. State recovered the ensuing onside kick (it had failed to get an earlier one).
O'Brien then ran the ball three times and - facing a fourth-and-2 from the Louisville 33 - went for it rather than punting.
Hey, it's a bowl, why not? But the Wolfpack didn't make it, giving Louisville one more chance to force overtime.
Down by a touchdown, Louisville was at its own 35, with 1:35 to go and two timeouts. The Cardinals got one first down, but then two big N.C. State sacks on Bridgewater - who was heavily pressured all night by the Wolfpack's defensive line - put Louisville into a desperate fourth-and-23 situation at its own 42.
And then here came Amerson - again. He picked off the Hail Mary - his 13th interception of the season, an ACC record. "He was going to take that ball away from everybody," O'Brien said.
It was a fitting end to a fine game.
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; email@example.com