LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren described Saturday's 30-18 loss to Louisville as a series of "little things here and there" that kept the Wolfpack from winning.
None was more costly than a fourth-quarter sack while the Wolfpack (4-4, 0-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) were just a yard away from the end zone.
N.C. State trailed 20-9 but had first and goal from the Cardinals' 1, thanks to a Louisville penalty that negated a third-down stop. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett was sacked for a seven-yard loss on the next play and Wolfpack mustered Niklas Sade's 25-yard field goal to trail 20-12 with 9:28 remaining.
N.C. State had entered the game 12-for-12 converting first-and-goal situations into touchdowns. Doeren said the play called for a play-action rollout that gave Brissett the option to run or pass.
Receiving option Matt Dayes fell on the play and Brissett also started to trip as he scrambled, choosing to take the sack rather than risk an interception off a poor throw or fumbling.
"When you call that kind of play, you don't expect that kind of stuff to happen," Doeren said. "We thought we'd either score with a walk-in or have to throw it incomplete and have second-and-1 on the 1.
"It was four downs for us; we were going to go for it anyway. In that kind of situation play-action is a good play and it just didn't work out."
It wasn't the only break that favored Louisville (6-2, 4-2).
On its opening drive N.C. State came up a yard short on a fourth-and-2 completion from the Louisville 26. Brissett found tight end David Grinnage for a 16-yard touchdown pass on the Wolfpack's next possession, the first offensive touchdown Louisville had surrendered in more than a month.
Sade's conversion kick clanked off the left upright.
Late in the third quarter, North Carolina State linebacker Airius Moore returned Will Gardner's fumble at least 70 yards for a touchdown that would have brought the Wolfpack within 17-15 with 1:21 remaining.
The game-changing play was overturned on review as replays showed that Gardner was down before the ball popped loose. The call was reversed, a huge momentum swing that Louisville converted into John Wallace's 38-yard field goal and a 20-9 lead.
N.C. State gained 351 yards against Louisville's top-ranked defense that entered the game allowing 230.7 yards per contest. Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, they allowed 369 and couldn't stop Cardinals running back Michael Dyer and wide receiver DeVante Parker.
Those players combined for 305 of Louisville's yards as Dyer rushed for 173 including the game-clinching 46-yard TD with 44 seconds left.
Parker added nine catches for 132 yards after missing nearly two months with a broken left toe.
But both teams ended up losing players during the contest. Louisville receiver James Quick did not return after hurting an ankle and senior linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin limped to the locker room with what coach Bobby Petrino said was a hamstring injury.
N.C. State's Brown was carted off the field late in the game with both legs strapped to a board. He gave a thumbs-up as he was wheeled away.
"When you go through the adversity we have as a program you have a chance to shrink or to grow from those kinds of moments," Doeren said. "We're going to grow."