I can remember it like it was three years ago. Three Louisville students on winter break en route from Northeast Ohio to Charlotte to witness a matchup for the ages in the Belk Bowl. Spirits were high, Christmas had just passed and Teddy Bridgewater mania was in its infancy. If only we knew in that moment the thrills that would come from an eight-hour trip through the hills and mountains of Southeastern Ohio and West Virginia to the promised land of the Queen City.
This whole thing was filled with unknowns, but we were filled with youthful ambition and naiveté. What was Belk? What could a sports bar in suburban Charlotte called Bikinis possibly be all about? Was the SpringHill Suites north of town nice? How much were Bobcats tickets for opening night?
Well, Belk is a department store chain they don't have in Ohio, Bikinis has since closed but you can guess what the theme was, the SpringHill Suites was pretty nice and Bobcats tickets were 10 bucks. Really, Charlotte is a great town.
I know you're dying to know that the Bobcats won in a 96-95 thriller over the Bucks behind D.J. Augustin's team-high 19 points. Brandon Jennings' 22 points on 8-of-21 shooting just couldn't bring Milwaukee all the way back, for some odd reason. Weird. We even got free opening night long-sleeved t-shirts, and as it turns out, we were lucky enough to see one of just seven Bobcats wins (7-59) on the lockout-shortened season. On top of it all, Time Warner Cable Arena was pretty nice.
After getting our thrill of the night at the half-full Bobcats opener, we headed over to the official Louisville party on some roof of some cool place in Uptown Charlotte. I wasn't even close to 21, but upon showing my ID confirming my significantly underage status, I got a wristband for a free drink anyway. I didn't use it because my buddies weren't as lucky. Sophomore me was still a major work in progress.
It was fun to be around other Louisville fans and see some familiar faces around town on Belk Bowl eve. The only other bowl games I'd been to at the time were multiple Motor City Bowls (MACtion), so this experience was already great. Don't get me wrong, there's something special about a Central Michigan/Purdue showdown in a quarter-filled Ford Field, but this was different. Don't ask me to put a finger on it.
Then game day came, which could only mean one thing. You got it, a FanFest concert in which Edwin McCain opened for Daughtry. If you can think of a better thing to get you ready for a football game, sorry, you're not living in this world. Sophomore me learned at that concert that "I'll Be" was actually Edwin McCain's original record and that Daughtry has a lot more hit records than I could originally come up with. I also learned that the guy singing "I'll Be" wasn't just some old guy in a cover band, it was actually Edwin McCain, who you'll remember I had never heard of until just moments earlier. Yes, I was an uncultured idiot. Like I said, a lot has changed since then.
Without looking at a box score, my recollection of the game was that it all felt okay after the first quarter. Bridgewater was holding his own in his bowl game debut, but it was apparent that the game would be a battle with a strong Wolfpack contingent on hand at Bank of America Stadium. Our seats were about midway up the upper deck around the 40ish yard line, and we were lucky enough to have a good number of Louisville fans around us. The underdog, road fan camaraderie that has been discussed at length in the wake of last weekend's Clemson trip was similar here. It was a blast.
Things didn't get better from that juncture, though, as Louisville got dominated in the middle quarters and gave significant momentum to the pro-N.C. State crowd. If memory serves me correctly, Teddy got pressured relentlessly and pummeled frequently, which ended up resulting in three picks and a lot of incompletions.
Still, there was always a sense that there was a chance until the very end. A recovered onside kick helped, as did Bridgewater's fourth quarter touchdown pass. In the end, it was disappointing to leave with a loss like it always is after any loss, but it was still the beginning of something. Everyone remembers how the following season ended.
This season's edition of Louisville/N.C. State is pegged completely differently. Louisville is the home team this time, and they're heavily and appropriately favored as a result. This game won't be played for any kind of trophy, but it is being played at a time when Louisville needs a victory for countless reasons. By default, it could end up bring a precursor to some historic victories in the near future.
We won't be able to go watch the Charlotte Bobcats tomorrow night. We won't be able to turn down free, authorized underage alcohol. We won't get to hear Edwin McCain or Daughtry. As sad as that all may be, it's probably a good thing. Daughtry put a spell on the game before it even had a chance by throwing up one of these abominations to the crowd. That sort of tomfoolery won't fly in Louisville, which should help the Cardinals finally avenge the loss at the hands of the Mike Glennon-led Wolfpack that came on that fateful December night in 2011.
Then, it will be the Wolfpack that gets to have the eight-hour drive home.