N.C. State's T.J. Graham beats Louisville's Calvin Pryor on his way to a 68-yard touchdown reception during the first half. ETHAN HYMAN - firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated 12:17 a.m.
CHARLOTTE — There was no such thing as the easy way for N.C. State's football team in the 2011 season.
So when it took a 21-point lead in the third quarter, you got the feeling Louisville would make the Belk Bowl interesting.
The Wolfpack held on for a 31-24 win over the Cardinals in front of 58,427 fans at Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday night.
N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon threw for three touchdowns, all in the first half, and cornerback David Amerson's 65-yard interception return for a touchdown provided the winning margin for the Wolfpack, which won its second straight bowl game.
"That's Wolfpack football," said receiver T.J. Graham, who caught two touchdowns. "We put on a show."
The Pack finished the uneven, yet exciting season — which included the biggest comeback in school history in the regular-season finale against Maryland just to get to Charlotte on Tuesday — with an 8-5 record.
"Eight and five sounds a lot better than 7-6," Glennon said. "This was an important win for the program and our seniors."
Louisville (7-6), which trailed 31-10 after Amerson's touchdown at 6:39 in the third quarter, got two touchdown passes from freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater threw touchdown passes of 2 yards (to tight end Nate Nord) and 2 yards (to receiver Josh Bellamy), the second at 3:55 in the fourth quarter, to cut State's lead to 31-24.
State gave the ball back after recovering the onside kick, which gave Louisville one last chance. Amerson made sure the Pack didn't blow the whole 21-point lead, picking off Bridgewater with 41 seconds left.
"I thought the game would come down to the final play and it did," State coach Tom O'Brien said.
State built a 21-10 halftime lead with two touchdowns to Graham, including a 68-yarder, and a 35-yarder to receiver Tobais Palmer.
The Pack had trailed 10-7 in the second quarter after Louisville turned two turnovers into 10 points.
Glennon was sharp in the first half, completing 14-of-19 passes for 216 yards with three touchdowns. He was 21-of-33 for the game for 263 yards, giving him 3,053 for the season — the fourth quarterback in school history to hit that mark.
The fourth-year junior threw for three touchdown passes in the Pack's eighth win of the season. Only Philip Rivers (34 in 2003) has thrown for more touchdowns in a season than Glennon, who finished his first season as a starter with 31.
The Pack made its share of mistakes, notably an uncharacteristic seven penalties. A special teams mistake by the Pack gave the Cards life early. Freshman punter Wil Baumann mishandled a low snap and then couldn't get a kick off, after being pressured by Louisville's Adrian Bushell.
Louisville recovered the fumble at State's 5-yard line and cashed in the turnover for seven points when Bridgewater scrambled in from 8 yards out with 1:06 left in the first quarter.
The Cards followed a Glennon interception, on a throw into double coverage, with a 32-yard field goal by Chris Philpott with 6:07 left in the half for the 10-7 lead.
Glennon answered with two quick drives. He was 5-for-5 on an 80-yard drive, which ended with a 35-yard strike to Palmer at 4:03 in the second quarter. On the next possession, Glennon found Graham in the seam for a 68-yard strike, on which Graham did the heavy lifting, making three Louisville defenders miss.
"I was thinking touchdown," Graham said. "This was my last game and I wasn't going to be caught."
Amerson, who emerged as the team's new defensive star with linebacker Nate Irving in the NFL, returned an interception 65 yards in the third quarter for a touchdown to some second-half breathing room in the Wolfpack's second straight bowl win. The interception, Amerson's 12th of the season, set a new ACC record.
He went one better on Louisville's last drive of the game.