CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Moments after Louisville's comeback bid fell short in a 31-24 loss to North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl, coach Charlie Strong was anxiously looking forward to next season instead of dwelling on the defeat.
Who can blame him?
The Cardinals finished 7-6 this season despite starting 10 freshmen, including promising young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. So their future seems promising following a season in which they finished tied for first place in the Big East and qualified for a bowl.
"We have so much coming back next season," Strong said. "The core of our offense is coming back. On defense we lose (linebacker) Dexter Heyman, which is a big loss for us, but everyone else is back. So we'll take this team in the offseason and hope they'll continue to mature and grow up from this loss. You can always learning something from a loss and this one is going to burn."
Strong said the goal this year will be adding some difference makers, particularly at defensive end and linebacker.
"We need to do a better job of recruiting," Strong said. "It's all about recruiting. We have to continue to build and move forward."
Leading the team into the future will be Bridgewater, who had moments of greatness on Tuesday night and other moments where he appeared lost.
He threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another and nearly brought Louisville back from 21 points down. But he was also picked off three times, making an awful decision early in the game by throwing the ball right to a linebacker three yards in front of him as he was being pressured.
Still, he never quit.
The Cardinals battled back and had once last chance to send the game into overtime after stopping N.C. State on fourth-and-1 late in the game. On a third-and-12, however, linebacker Dontae Johnson sacked Bridgewater for an 11-yard loss, setting up David Amerson's game-clinching interception.
"It's about having heart and not giving up and just that will to win," Bridgewater said.
But the hole proved too big dig out of for the Cardinals.
N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon, the game's Most Valuable Player, threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns and Amerson picked off Bridgewater twice, returning one 65 yards for a touchdown.
T.J. Graham made the most of his final game at N.C. State with seven catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns, including a 65-yard score on a nifty catch-and-run, as the Wolfpack (8-5) overcame a series of special-teams blunders to hold off a late charge from the Cardinals (7-6).
Amerson finished the year with 13 interceptions, the most in the country, while setting a new Atlantic Coast Conference record.
Louisville used a fake punt to get back in the game after falling behind 31-10.
Bridgewater threw a pair of 2-yard touchdown passes to close the gap to 31-24 with 3:55 left in the game.
The Wolfpack came into the game leading the nation in interceptions and picked off Bridgewater three times.
On Louisville's first possession, Bridgewater came under pressure and made a poor decision to try to dump the ball off, but instead threw it in the hands of linebacker Terrell Manning. Glennon took advantage, methodically driving the Wolfpack 79 yards completing 6 of 7 passes for 49 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown strike to Graham to take a 7-0 lead.
Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien was worried about his young special teams unit coming into the game and his worst fears were realized on his team's next drive. Freshman punter Will Baumann mishandled a low snap from center and was swarmed under at the 5-yard line by the Cardinals.
Bridgewater cashed in three plays later on an 8-yard touchdown run, getting to the corner just ahead of Wolfpack defenders.
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 Tobais 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.
N.C. State tacked on three more to start the third quarter after a pair of costly Louisville penalties — a running into the kicker on Adrian Bushell on fourth down and unnecessary roughness call on linebacker Preston Brown after the Cardinals stopped the Wolfpack on third down.
The Wolfpack seemingly put the game away 17 seconds later when Amerson intercepted Bridgewater downfield and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown.
Bridgewater was sacked five times and twice had to leave the game with injuries, although both times he returned one play later.
"He showed toughness," Strong said.
"Their blitz pattern was simple," Bridgewater said. "It was just that they blitzed so much that they disguised it well and things like that. It was more than I've been chased all year."
The loss was tough to take, but the Cardinals know their future looks bright.
"It hurt to come so close when you feel that you could have won the game, especially when you battle back after being own so much," Brown said. "We just have to get better next year."