Luke DeCock

NC State’s quarterbacks may not be making plays, but the Wolfpack defense is

N.C. State is two wins away from a remarkable feat, especially at a place with a reputation for sending quarterbacks to the NFL: Getting to a bowl game despite its quarterback play, rather than because of it.

The Wolfpack has used three different quarterbacks this season. The guy who won the job over a month of practices in training camp is now third on the depth chart after six games and the most impressive passer in Thursday night’s 16-10 win over Syracuse was a wide receiver, which pretty much sums up how things have gone.

“We had some good things going in the run game,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “Obviously we were able to complete some passes and score enough points to win. At the end of the day, that’s what counts and that’s what matters.”

From Matthew McKay to Bailey Hockman to Devin Leary (briefly) and back to Hockman, the Wolfpack hasn’t yet found anyone who can keep defenses honest. N.C. State hoped one of them would be able to step into the job vacated by Ryan Finley, but it’s clear at this point none of the three is quite ready for the responsibility. Too much, too soon.

At least all three have been able to stay mostly upright. Syracuse’s Tommy DeVito was absolutely battered by the Wolfpack defense, sacked eight times and under duress all night.

Combine N.C. State’s passing game with Syracuse’s offensive line and you get a total of 13 punts, something only a punter could enjoy. Fortunately, there were a couple in attendance. Ex-NFL punter Pat McAfee was one of two ESPN analysts, and former N.C. State and current Oakland Raiders punter A.J. Cole watched with Mike Glennon from above McAfee in the broadcast booth.

Glennon threw a ceremonial last pass to Torry Holt during a first-half timeout, honoring Holt’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame with a fade into the back corner of the end zone, and it was (not unexpectedly) the best pass thrown by a quarterback all night. The best pass thrown overall was by Thayer Thomas on a double pass, from left of the left hash all the way across the field to Trent Pennix for N.C. State’s only passing touchdown.

Former N.C. State receiver Torry Holt makes a ceremonial reception from a pass by Mike Glennon during a ceremony honoring Holt’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Syracuse at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Ethan Hyman

As much as fans clamor for Leary, who survived one epic scramble on the one series he played Thursday, it looks like Hockman is the guy for now. It’s curious how McKay could win the job in camp and be out of the picture by October, but McKay’s inability to deliver the ball downfield was a limiting factor for the Wolfpack offense. Hockman, the Florida State and junior-college transfer, has more of an arm, even if his decision-making appears a little suspect at times. Thursday, he threw for 205 yards and one interception, with another ill-advised near-pick in the end zone.

“He did some good things,” Doeren said. “He’s got to learn what to do when things aren’t there. He took some sacks and didn’t get rid of the ball, trying to do too much. But he did some good things, made some great passes. Directed things well. Took care of the football for the most part. He’ll learn a lot from this game.”

It is a learning experience, and none of this is meant to be a harsh criticism of any of the three. They’re young. They’re inexperienced. They’re learning on the job. Their best days are ahead, all of them. It’s just the reality of the situation that none of the three is at an ACC level yet, but they’re the only options N.C. State has, and it leaves the Wolfpack wanting in the red zone where opponents can all but ignore the pass and load up against the run.

Maybe one of them grows into the job, this season or next. Maybe the next Finley (Ben) comes in next year and these guys end up on the same page of the record book as Brandon Mitchell and Pete Thomas, who kept the seat warm until Jacoby Brissett was eligible.

If N.C. State’s defense can play like it did against Syracuse, that may be enough. The Wolfpack doesn’t deserve to go to a bowl if it can’t beat Georgia Tech, so that has to be win No. 5. Get one at Boston College next Saturday or at home against Louisville in November, and the Wolfpack will keep its bowl streak alive despite a rash of injuries in a rebuilding year, no matter who’s under center.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.