Dave Doeren made one quarterback change by choice on Saturday night. He made another that wasn’t.
After getting to see all three of his options in a 31-13 loss at Florida State, the N.C. State coach has 12 days figure out a new plan.
No big deal. It’s possible only the next three years depend on it. If it wasn’t clear with the West Virginia loss, it was by the end of the third quarter on Saturday: this is a rebuilding year for N.C. State (3-2, 0-1 ACC).
The No. 1 priority for Doeren this season is to find the right quarterback and be set at the most important position going forward. Doeren has had the luxury of being able to give the ball to two different NFL quarterbacks (Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Finley) for the past five years.
He went into this season with three choices to replace Finley, the All-ACC quarterback in 2018. Sophomore Matt McKay won the job and started the first five games. After three series with McKay on Saturday in the ACC opener, Doeren decided he had to make a change.
“At this point, we don’t have time to wait any more,” Doeren said.
McKay was 3 of 7 for 20 yards and N.C. State had one first down on the first three possessions. He was 1 of 8 in the second half of the Ball State win last week.
“Matt was not doing what I thought Matt was going to do,” Doeren said. “It was obvious he was off.”
McKay’s biggest problem in the first four games was throwing the ball down the field. Against Florida State, the problem zone expanded.
“Love him to death, and he’s a great young man, but it’s one thing when you’re not completing the ball down the field,” Doeren said. “It’s another when you’re not completing it underneath.”
Enter sophomore Bailey Hockman, who actually began his career at FSU and competed with James Blackman and Deondre Francois before the 2018 season to be the Seminoles’ starter.
Francois won the job and Hockman took a detour to junior college. The four-star recruit from Georgia landed back in the ACC and his first start was at FSU, as was his plan all along, it just wasn’t for FSU.
N.C. State ran the ball the first two plays with Hockman in the game and then picked up a defensive pass interference on Hockman’s first attempt. On third-and-2 from the FSU 7, Hockman tripped after taking the snap from under center and lost five yards. Chris Dunn made a 29-yard field goal but it was a poor precedent. N.C. State needed touchdowns, not field goals.
Its defense, maligned at West Virginia two weeks ago and in the second half of the Ball State win last week, started strong and gave the offense a couple of opportunities to take control of the game. The Wolfpack finished with eight sacks and held FSU running back Cam Akers (83 yards), about 40 yards below his season average.
Neither McKay nor Hockman could get the Wolfpack offense in the end zone in the first half. Hockman had the offense moving but not enough to keep up with FSU backup Alex Hornibrook, who threw for 316 yards as a fill-in starter for Blackman.
Hockman completed 21 of 40 passes for 208 yards and hit receiver Emeka Emezie for a 3-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter but it was too late to make a difference in the outcome.
“We’ve got to be able throw the football better,” Doeren said. “That’s what we’ve got to work on.”
Hockman would have finished the game but he said he tweaked his knee on the final possession. So freshman Devin Leary, who N.C. State fans have been clamoring for, came on and took the final seven snaps.
Leary, a ballyhooed recruit out of New Jersey in 2018, completed 4 of his 5 passes for 54 yards. He might have had a touchdown but receiver Max Fisher fumbled into the end zone after he picked up 23 yards.
There was an extra pop to Leary’s throws. He has always had the best arm of the group. The question is about his decision-making and his ability to take care of the ball.
That’s how McKay won the job in the first place. As a third-year player in the program, he was the safest choice and a popular one with his teammates.
But sometimes the safe route doesn’t get you to your preferred destination. Now Doeren has the kind of conundrum he had hoped to avoid this season.
Leary’s flash makes the quarterback choice more complicated as N.C. State heads into the first open date of the season before a crucial (for its bowl hopes) Thursday night home game with Syracuse on Oct. 10.
“Possibly, I mean, I don’t know,” Doeren said when asked if Leary’s performance changed the depth chart. “(Leary) looked great. I’m proud of him.”
Doeren gets a little extra time to make the most important decision of the season.