N.C. State Vs. Louisville, Belk Bowl 2011: Two Kinds Of 7-5

LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 12: Teddy Bridgewater #5 of the Louisville Cardinals runs with the ball while defended by Brandon Lindsey #7 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

N.C. State's late charge to bowl eligibility likely saved coach Tom O'Brien's job. Can they force enough mistakes out of an incredibly young Louisville lineup to overcome their own deficiencies and pull out an eighth win?

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

A 7-5 record can mean so many different things. It could mean setbacks (Auburn), underachievement (Texas), breakthroughs (Western Kentucky) or what-ifs (Utah State). It could mean strong starts (Washington) or fine finishes (Missouri). For Louisville, it meant a rebuilding effort that was a bit more successful than expected. For N.C. State, it meant a late charge to save Tom O'Brien's job in unlikely fashion.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
N.C. State 7-5 NR 68 60 68 85
Louisville 7-5 NR 43 38 54 47
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
N.C. State 57 103 40 29
Louisville 108 107 12 89

Both N.C. State and Louisville have quite a few young pieces around which to build, meaning this bowl will be seen as a stepping stone moment by both programs. But Louisville has a bit of an advantage over N.C. State in one key area: quality play. The Cardinals had a lot more of it in 2011 than the Wolfpack.

When N.C. State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
N.C. State Offense 60 98 59 100 99 110 79
Louisville Defense 54 56 37 70 66 51 88
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
N.C. State Offense 56.4% 108 23.4% 57
Louisville Defense 56.4% 47 30.0% 89
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

N.C. State has shown in 2011 that, given their druthers, they would be running the ball quite a bit, especially on standard downs. The main problem: they can't. James Washington and Tony Creecy combined to average more than 25 carries per game ... and under four yards per carry. (Their advanced stats are horrific: they combined for a minus-18.2 Adj. POE, meaning they were about three touchdowns worse than the average running back.) They were also targeted by about seven passes per game ... and averaged under six yards per target. The world is wide open for an N.C. State running back, but Washington and Creecy haven't taken advantage.

As the season progressed, then, more responsibility ended up on the shoulders of quarterback Mike Glennon, the quarterback with enough potential to make Tom O'Brien think that letting Russell Wilson walk was a good move. Glennon responded with decent numbers and some serious ups and downs. He torched Clemson and Central Michigan, he looked putrid against Florida State and North Carolina, and he spanned the entire spectrum in a jarring comeback win over Maryland (the Wolfpack scored six touchdowns in the final 21 minutes to turn a 41-14 deficit into a 56-14 win). He is aggressive on standard downs, often trying to find T.J. Graham or Tobias Palmer deep downfield; on passing downs, he goes conservative, dumping to Jay Smith or running backs and only occasionally looking for Graham.

One has to figure N.C. State will be throwing often against Louisville; never mind that they haven't left themselves much of a choice in the matter ... it's basically what Louisville opponents do if they want to move the ball. The pass defense has not come around quite as much as the run defense, and despite a reasonably decent pass rush, Hakeem Smith, Mike Evans and the rest of the Cardinals' secondary are typically rather vulnerable, even on passing downs. The front seven, however, is quite strong. Linebacker Dexter Heyman (67.5 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions) is the steady senior in a lineup with 15 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep.

When Louisville Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Louisville Offense 38 65 39 54 60 59 49
N.C. State Defense 68 54 25 76 45 64 48
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Louisville Offense 60.2% 62 34.1% 56
N.C. State Defense 59.6% 48 27.3% 48
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Longtime backup begins the season as a starter, but through either injuries or ineffectiveness, is replaced by the freshman blue-chipper. It is a narrative that has played out countless times, at every level of college football, and it was the feature storyline of Louisville's 2011 season. Will Stein, former walk-on and all-around happy guy, injured his shoulder in the third game of the season, and the Teddy Bridgewater era began a little sooner than expected. After a couple of iffy (to say the least) performances, Bridgewater began to figure things out. In the final five games of the regular season (four of which were Louisville wins), the freshman from Miami completed 89 of 127 passes (70 percent) for 1,024 yards (8.1 per pass), seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He showed occasionally timely running ability (52 non-sack carries for 243 yards), but his accuracy and decision-making were the primary reasons for Louisville's late-season rally. The Cardinals sat at 2-4 on October 21 before finishing 5-1.

What makes Louisville's surge even more impressive was that Bridgewater was far from the only youngster playing a key role. Running back Dominique Brown (131 carries, 482 yards, minus-2.5 Adj. POE) is a sophomore, receiver Michaelee Harris (438 receiving yards, 76-percent catch rate) is a redshirt freshman, and receivers Eli Rogers (400 yards, 74-percent catch rate) and DeVante Parker (276 yards, 65-percent catch rate) are true freshmen. Bridgewater leaned on senior tight end Josh Chichester (365 yards, 53-percent catch rate) at times, especially on standard downs, but the base of Louisville's skill positions was as young (and occasionally effective) as the Louisville defense.

The same can be said for much of N.C. State's defense. The Wolfpack were not wonderful on a play-by-play basis, but they prevented big plays, went for strips and picks, and created enough turnovers to give their hit-or-miss defense an opportunity to succeed. They forced 19 fumbles, third-most in the country; linebackers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning forced for each. They also ended up with 22.5 tackles for loss (nine sacks) and 131 tackles overall. Meanwhile, Bridgewater has probably been having nightmares about cornerback David Amerson torturing his young receivers; Amerson picked off 11 passes (most in the country) and broke up another five. If you avoid killer mistakes against N.C. State, you can move the ball; but young offenses are oft prone to said killer mistakes.

The Verdict

Louisville by 6.8.

Two numbers two watch: turnovers and N.C. State's rushing yards. If the Wolfpack win the turnover battle and can average five yards per carry or so, they will be very difficult to beat. But those are two pretty large ifs. If Bridgewater remains efficient and smart, then Louisville is tough to beat, and it will only become tougher in future seasons. N.C. State's run to 7-5 was a lifeline for Tom O'Brien; Louisville's was quite possibly a sign of a very bright future.

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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