Matt McKay said he was never nervous.
Not last week in NC. State’s practices. Not Friday night, before the season opener with East Carolina. Not Saturday, before the game. Not in the game.
When he took the field for his first snap as the Wolfpack’s starting quarterback, McKay said he paused for a moment: “Took a deep breath and said, ‘OK, we’re playing football.”’
This was what McKay came to N.C. State to do — play football, play quarterback, lead his team, win games. The first two years he mostly watched Ryan Finley do that, but Finley has gone to the NFL and it was McKay’s turn Saturday to be the man as the Pack rolled to a 34-6 victory over the Pirates.
McKay passed for 308 yards on a 25-for-37 performance, combining with graduate wide receiver Tabari Hines for a 48-yard touchdown. He ran for two scores, the 6-4, 214-pound redshirt sophomore bulldozing in for the first in the second quarter, then fooling ECU on a well-designed 21-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like I did a pretty solid job,” McKay said after the game.
That’s McKay. He’s not a big talker. Expressive, but not a big talker.
“I could have done better with my reads and taking what the defense did and not force anything, but I felt like I really settled in and focused on winning,” he said.
For McKay, that’s a nearly a soliloquy. But it also blends both self-criticism with self-confidence. The former Wakefield High star knows he can play better but was proud of how he did play, efficiently, without a turnover.
“Definitely prepared for my moment,” he said.
Matt McKay a confident player
There were a few overthrows that he corrected. On a fourth-and-2 play in the first quarter, he tried to sneak his way behind center Grant Gibson for a first down and came up short.
“They gave me the right look and I tried to do it, but ...” he said, smiling.
There was that one time in the second quarter when ECU defensive end Kendall Futrell came crashing into the backfield. McKay tried to pull the ball away from running back Ricky Person but Futrell made the hit and the ball popped free. ECU defensive back Michael Witherspoon tried to scoop it up but McKay jumped in to knock the ball away and Pack offensive tackle Emanuel McGirt recovered at the ECU 4-yard line.
A few plays later, McKay turned to his left after the snap, expecting Person to be there — “That was a little signal issue that I put on me,” McKay said. With Person on the other side, McKay just put his head down and followed Person and McGirt into a big scrum, fighting and straining and not stopping until he was in the end zone for 4-yard touchdown.
“He’s a confident guy,” said McGirt, a graduate student. “He’s got a lot of poise. He’s only 19 or 20 years old but he’s pretty confident in the huddle.”
McKay smiled when asked about his 21-yard TD run. It came after he first hooked up with Thayer Thomas, then twice with Emeka Emezie on sideline throws. With three receivers right, to the wide side of the field, McKay sent a back in motion to the right, pump faked a throw, then followed tight end Dylan Autenrieth around the left side, diving for the pylon to score.
McKay was welcomed back to the sideline by his coach, Dave Doeren, as both celebrated that moment.
“We talked about running that play the first play of the game but we didn’t,” McKay said. “But (Doeren) said he was going to get it to me and I felt good running it.”
And Doeren felt good about how well McKay ran the team. The competition at quarterback in preseason practices was keen and McKay won the job. Now he’s 1-0 as a starter.
“As practice went on throughout the week you could see him getting more and more confident,” Doeren said. “On Thursday he had his best practice that I’ve seen since he’s been here. I told the guys, ‘If he throws like that we’re good Saturday’ because he was throwing dimes.
“He was very confident, he was very calm. He put his time in, studied and prepared, I tell the players if you’re prepared you won’t be nervous.”
Few players were better prepared the past few seasons than Finley, who had a tremendous mental grasp of the game plans. And it was Finley who texted McKay last week, stressing preparation to his understudy the past two years.
McKay said in his mind, he’s not trying to replace Finley or prove he can play as well as Finley. It’s his job now.
“He paved the way for me,” McKay said. “I’m just following in his footsteps and just trying to be Matthew McKay.”