NC State's O'Brien proud team playing in Belk Bowl
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — "Don't give up, don't ever give up."
It's been years since Jim Valvano said those words in an impassioned speech while battling cancer, but it's one that still resonates with the athletes that attend North Carolina State.
It certainly did for this year's Wolfpack football team.
The way coach Tom O'Brien sees it his team was "dead in the water" five games into the season.
O'Brien said his players had a decision to make at that point — blame the losing season to the team's mounting injuries or persevere through and fight back.
N.C. State did the latter on more occasion than once.
After falling to 2-3 following a 45-35 loss to Georgia Tech, the Wolfpack's bowl chances looked bleak.
But they bounced back to win five of their final seven games, highlighted by a 37-13 win over eventual ACC champion Clemson and a remarkable rally from 27 points down to beat Maryland 56-41 in the regular season finale, which earned them the right to play in the Dec. 27 Belk Bowl against Louisville.
O'Brien said the players never stopped battling.
"It speaks to the character of the kids," O'Brien said in press conference Tuesday in Charlotte previewing the upcoming Belk Bowl. "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 kept firing away."
The Wolfpack were so devastated with injuries up front on defense early in the season they had to move starting fullback Taylor Gentry and backup center Jacob Kahut over to play defensive line.
Eventually they got healthy — seven of eight regulars on the defensive line will play in the bowl game — and went from 11th in the league in defense after five games to finishing the season fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
That's one of the reasons for N.C. State's turnaround.
O'Brien said the Wolfpack also "grew up" on offense as the year went by, led by quarterback Mike Glennon who finished the season with 2,790 yards passing and 28 touchdowns.
The Maryland game seemed to be a microcosm of the entire season.
N.C. State fell behind early by 27 points and then showed great perseverance in battling back to win.
"To dig the ditch we were in it that game it was kind of like where we were five games through the season," O'Brien said. "(But) all of a sudden when things turned, they turned really fast in our favor and you have to give our kids a lot of credit."
The Wolfpack beat rivals North Carolina, Clemson and Maryland all in the same season for the first time since 1992.
"That was significant for this football team," Obrien said.
O'Brien said he hasn't had a chance to look at Louisville on tape yet.
But he knows they're a "quality opponent" and may be the one 7-5 team that's hotter than the Wolfpack.
The Cardinals finished the season winning five of their final six games, including a huge win over West Virginia. Louisville wound up tied for the best record in the Big East but West Virginia won the BCS tiebreaker.
"We know we're playing a hot team," O'Brien said. "There should be a lot of red in the stadium come the 27th of December. It should be a great football game."
O'Brien has a strong history in bowl games.
He believes the key to a successful bowl run is resting key players during the weeks leading up the game, a lesson he learned after losing to Colorado in his first bowl postseason appearance in 1999 while coach at Boston College.
Since then, O'Brien's teams are 8-1 in bowl games, including a North Carolina State's 23-7 win over West Virginia in last year's Champs Sports Bowl.
In terms of the big picture, O'Brien believes the program is headed in the right direction, particularly with so many underclassmen returning.
"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. I go back to what coach (Bill) Cowher said to the team a couple of years ago: Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals character.
"So I think (this season) has revealed the character of our kids."