CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- N.C. State's defense made a habit this season of coming up with big plays at precisely the right time to help the Wolfpack pick up enough wins to reach the postseason.
In Tuesday night's Belk Bowl versus Louisville, the defense was charged with that responsibility again, but this time had to make up for an N.C. State special teams that was dominated by the Cardinals.
Louisville blocked a punt that led to a short touchdown drive, ran a fake punt 37 yards that led to a touchdown, and returned a kickoff 58 yards, among other things. It would have thrown an imbalance into the game had the Wolfpack's defense not stepped up and made plays to offset Louisville's impressive advantage on special teams.
"I think we just knew that if we did our part we'd have a better chance of winning," senior linebacker Audie Cole said. "It sounds simple, but it really is. And when they got some big plays, we had to as well."
Linebacker Terrell Manning picked off a Teddy Bridgewater pass in the opening quarter and later had two enormously important tackles on fourth downs, the latter coming with less than 10 minutes remaining and NCSU trying to preserve a two-touchdown lead.
The performance for Manning, a 6-foot-3, 233-pound redshirt junior, who battled through a bad knee injury a few years ago, was especially pleasing to Wolfpack eyes. He looked like the player the program recruited, and might now just finally be back to full physical strength.
His mind certainly never wavered.
"I never really doubted I'd be back like this," Manning said. "That drove me, it drove me every day to be the player I knew I could be."
It was also a special night for sophomore cornerback Dave Amerson, who snagged his 12th interception of the season, returning it 65 yards for a score in the third quarter that gave the Wolfpack a 31-10 lead. The pick marked a single-season ACC record for Amerson, breaking the previous record set by North Carolina's Dre' Bly in a 12-game season in 1997.
The Greensboro, NC, native had just missed making a big play on the previous snap. He pumped his fists and was clearly upset with himself. He made up for it in entertaining fashion. His run was chock full of jukes, side steps and an explosion or two.
"David Amerson, that interception, I don't know if I've seen any better," O'Brien said. "I have to go look at it on tape because I couldn't see a lot once he got caught up in their boundary. And then you look at last play of the game, he went up to get that ball and he was going to take it away from everybody. Certainly, he's deserved of the record he has."
Amerson snared his 13th pick of the season on Louisville's final offensive play and made a few other coverage plays, but the interception and touchdown his second score after a pick of the season will stand out for a long time to come.
As for the record, he didn't see it coming in August. Amerson is somewhat familiar with Bly "I don't know too much about him but I heard he was pretty good. He did it as a freshman" but now he's passed by the longtime pro.
And N.C. State passed by Louisville, thanks to an opportunistic defense that did its part one more time.