45F Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
Every program wants to reach a Bowl Championship Series game, but there are steps needed to arrive at that destination.
Both Louisville and North Carolina State see their contest at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Tuesday night as an opportunity to strengthen their respective foundations toward the goal of regularly being in BCS contention.
With 10 freshmen starters, Louisville (7-5) may be ahead of schedule under second-year coach Charlie Strong. He's posted back-to-back winning seasons after the Cardinals had three straight sub-.500 campaigns following their lone BCS appearance after the 2006 season.
Getting to this bowl, though, didn't come easily. The Cardinals - picked to finish seventh in the Big East - started 2-4 before Strong held a team meeting in which senior Anthony Conner called out his teammates for selfish and inconsistent play.
The meeting sparked a turnaround as Louisville won five of its last six games, but in a cruel twist, Conner wasn't on the field for most of that stretch. The cornerback suffered a broken neck in the game after the meeting - a 16-14 victory over Rutgers - making a tackle that ended his football career.
"Guys now, they'll say, 'He's not here, but we have to go play for him,'" Strong said.
Louisville's biggest strides during its surge came on the offensive side of the ball once Teddy Bridgewater settled in at quarterback. He set a school record for passing yards by a freshman (1,855) and had arguably his best game in the season finale at South Florida, where he threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns to rally the Cardinals to a 34-24 victory.
"He plays with so much poise and he's a guy that can get us out of bad plays," Strong said of the quarterback, who was named Big East rookie of the year. "It's been fun to watch him. But Teddy's development has come because of the development of the offensive line. ... At the beginning of the season we couldn't run the football. Then our last six games we were able to rush for over 100 yards (every game)."
The Cardinals have a solid tandem at running back in Dominique Brown and Victor Anderson, who combined for 960 yards and seven TDs. Bridgewater's favorite targets through the air are fellow freshmen Michaelee Harris and Eli Rogers, who had 37 and 34 receptions, respectively.
North Carolina State (7-5) also closed the season on an uptick, winning five of seven. Despite finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division of the ACC, the Wolfpack realized their potential in their final two games by routing eventual conference champion Clemson and rallying from 27 down - the largest comeback in school history - to defeat Maryland.
"It speaks to the character of the kids," said coach Tom O'Brien, who could have 14 returning starters for 2012. "If you go back to one of our famous basketball coaches whose mantra was to 'never, ever give up.' They kept hanging in there and firing away."
Mike Glennon, who stepped into the starting quarterback role after Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, finished with 2,790 yards and 28 touchdown passes - including six games with at least three scoring tosses. The junior threw five TD passes Nov. 26 versus the Terrapins and ran for a sixth as the Wolfpack overcame a 41-14 deficit in the final 21 minutes.
Glennon spread the wealth among his receivers - six players had at least 25 receptions. T.J. Graham had 39 catches with team highs of 641 yards and five touchdowns, and junior running back James Washington anchored the ground game with 852 yards and seven scores while adding 39 receptions for 300 yards.
North Carolina State led all FBS teams with 24 interceptions, including a school-record and national-best 11 by sophomore David Amerson. The 6-foot-3 cornerback, who also had 37 solo tackles and 54 overall, won the Jack Tatum Award and was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.
O'Brien is making his third bowl appearance in five seasons with the Wolfpack and trying to win a second straight one after a 23-7 victory over West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl last year. Like Strong, O'Brien is encouraged with the direction of a program which has never been to a BCS bowl but appears to be building toward better things.
"Anytime you get to a situation we were in you're either going to cash your chips in or you're going to make a move," O'Brien said. "We made a move."
Louisville has won all three meetings between the teams, including a 29-10 victory in the most recent one in 2007.