North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien took a lot of heat when he decided to part ways with star quarterback Russell Wilson and go with unproven junior Mike Glennon as his starter.
It all worked out on Tuesday night in the Belk Bowl, with Glennon throwing for 264 yards and three touchdowns to lead NC State over Louisville 31-24 — and earn MVP honors in the process.
So O’Brien feels vindicated, right? Well, not so much.
”I never had to feel vindicated by any of that,” said O’Brien, who ran his record to 8-2 in bowl games. ”That would never be my goal once I made a decision. I don’t care what people think. I made a decision what was best for this football team going forward. When I made the decision and weighing all options and looking at the talent this kid has I knew we would have a quarterback. I don’t have to feel vindicated by anybody.”
Then he smiled and added, ”but he helped (vindicate) me.”
Glennon threw two of his touchdown passes to senior receiver T.J. Graham, who made the most of his final game at NC State with seven catches for 116 yards, including a 65-yard score on a nifty catch-and-run.
He threw another to Tobais Palmer, who made what Glennon called ”the best catch I’ve seen all year” when Palmer completely turned his body around in midair and managed to catch it and keep running to the end zone for a 35-yard score.
Glennon finished the season with 31 touchdown passes.
”I knew Russell was a great player and would do great wherever he ended up but I also felt confidence in myself and I know my teammates had confidence in me, so I knew I would do just fine this year,” Glennon said.
NC State (8-5) also got a huge effort from its defense, which came in leading the country in interceptions.
David Amerson, the nation’s individual leader in interceptions, had two of the Wolfpack’s three picks on Louisville freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He returned one 65 yards for a touchdown to put the Wolfpack up by 21 midway through the third quarter and later sealed the win with a pick on a final fourth-and-23 heave by Bridgewater with 41 seconds left.
Amerson finished the season with 13 interceptions, a new Atlantic Coast Conference record.
”The DB’s had to step up and make a play at the end of the game and that’s what we did,” Amerson said. ”I just saw that ball and it was like tunnel vision. I was going to go get it.”
Bridgewater had an up and down night, throwing for 274 yards and two touchdowns and running for another. But the three picks hurt.
”Their blitz pattern was simple, it’s just that they blitz so much though that they disguised it well,” Bridgewater said. ”It was more than we faced all year.”
Down 21, Louisville coach Charlie Strong used a fake punt and recovered an onside kick to get back in the game after falling behind by 21.
Bridgewater threw 2-yard touchdown passes to tight end Nate Nord and wide receiver Josh Bellamy to close the gap to 31-24 with 3:55 left in the game.
The Cardinals had one last chance to send the game into overtime after stopping NC State on fourth-and-2. However, on a third-and-12, Dontae Johnson sacked Bridgewater for an 11-yard loss to set up Amerson’s clinching interception.
”You would obviously like to see Teddy get rid of the ball on that sack,” Strong said.
O’Brien was worried about his young special teams unit coming into the game and his worst fears were realized early in the game when freshman punter Will Baumann mishandled a low snap from center and was swarmed under at the 5-yard line.
The Cardinals cashed in three plays later on an 8-yard touchdown run by Bridgewater to tie the game.
After Louisville went ahead 10-7, Glennon bounced back from an early interception by completing five straight passes for 80 yards, capped by a 35-yard touchdown to Palmer, who made a nice adjustment with the ball in midair to haul in the pass.
Then came the play of the game as Graham caught a pass over the middle from Glennon and broke two tackles en route to a 68-yard touchdown reception giving the Wolfpack a 21-10 lead at the break.
”North Carolina State is an outstanding football team but we are nowhere near what we should be,” Strong said. ”If you look at a team that’s what we have to get to. We have to do a better job of recruiting and we have to be able to go make plays and get playmakers into our offense and also get playmakers into our defense. It was a good learning experience for us.
”We were able to come back the second half and get the game back to seven but we still were just battling and then too much pressure on the quarterback. Teddy took a beating tonight but we knew they were going to bring pressure and we just weren’t able to block them and they were able to beat one on one blocks and we weren’t able to get to their quarterback.”