Where NC State’s passing game has gone wrong and what the QB change could fix

N.C. State’s passing game has been restricted, like a golf cart with a governor, through the first five games of the season.

The Wolfpack needs to be able to speed up and push the ball down the field, coach Dave Doeren said. Hence his decision to make a change at quarterback for Thursday night’s ACC home opener (8 p.m., ESPN) with Syracuse (3-2, 0-1 ACC).

Sophomore Bailey Hockman will start for the Wolfpack (3-2, 0-1) and freshman Devin Leary “will have an opportunity” at meaningful snaps, Doeren said.

Sophomore Matt McKay started the first five games at quarterback and mostly played it safe with his passes. Of McKay’s 150 attempts this season, 69.3 percent (104) traveled inside of 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.

McKay completed 66 of the 104 passes that went 0 to 9 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage for 485 yards. Two of his three touchdown passes on the season came from the same short distance.

When McKay did try to test a defense with a deep pass, he was often off the mark. On the first play of a second-quarter touchdown drive at West Virginia on Sept. 14, McKay hit tight end Cary Angeline with a perfect pass 20 yards down the right hashmark. Angeline ran 19 more yards after the catch.

Of 13 attempts this season that traveled 20 yards or more from the line of scrimmage, that was the only one McKay completed.

Making the QB switch

N.C. State quarterback Matt McKay (7) prepares to pass during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Western Carolina at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. Ethan Hyman

When McKay struggled early on short throws in the first quarter of the Florida State loss on Sept. 28, Doeren had decided to make the move to Hockman.

“We got in the (FSU) game, and we just weren’t moving the football,” Doeren said. “And so we gave (Hockman) an opportunity and we started to get some balls down the field and open up some things.”

Against FSU, eight of Hockman’s 40 attempts were downfield shots. He completed one, for 33 yards down the left sideline to receiver Devin Carter. It was the kind of “50-50” pass that quarterback Ryan Finley routinely tried (and often completed) last season.

Doeren knew there would be an adjustment this season with Finley and his top two receivers (Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers) in the NFL. But while N.C. State has been able to run the football (its 4.8 yards per carry ranks fourth-best in the ACC), it has struggled to create big plays in the passing game.

“We’re not explosive in the pass game right now,” Doeren said.

N.C. State charts “explosive” pass plays as completions that go for 20 yards or more. Through five games, N.C. State has eight explosive. Last year’s group had 64 in 13 games.

Doeren is hopeful Hockman will be able to change that. The sophomore lefty has thrown a smaller percentage of short passes (52 percent or 26 of his 50 attempts) than McKay but he has connected on only 1 of his 10 attempts of 20-plus yards this season.

N.C. State quarterback Bailey Hockman (16) prepares to throw during the second half of Florida State’s 31-13 victory over N.C. State at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. Ethan Hyman

Leary, in half of a series against FSU, showed the kind of arm talent to get the ball effectively down the field. He completed 4 of his 5 passes for 54 yards. Those were his first five attempts of the season.

He took one shot down the field, to Carter in the end zone, in his five attempts. He completed both his short attempts and both of his attempts between 10 and 19 yards.

“We need to get more explosive plays and just be more efficient, period, in our pass game,” Doeren said.

A drop-off from 2018

With Finley, a sixth-year college player and three-year starter, N.C. State ranked No. 8 in the country in passing offense (313.2 yards per game). The per game average is down to 247.4 (which ranks No. 65 in the country) this season. McKay, Hockman and Leary entered the season without a college start between them so there is a learning curve involved.

Dropped passes have not helped the new quarterbacks, nor has the shuffling of the line due to injuries. Right tackle Justin Witt is expected to miss the Syracuse game and left tackle Tyrone Riley has been out since the second day of practice.

Penalties and self-inflicted procedural wounds have also slowed the offense.

“These are things that we can fix,” Doeren said. “We need to do a good job as a staff of putting these guys in position to make plays and then they need to make them.”

Syracuse at NC State

When: 8 p.m., Thursday

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh

Watch: ESPN

Listen: WRAL-101.5 Triangle; WXRC-95.7 Charlotte

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Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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