Devin Leary looked up at the clock with 1:44 remaining Saturday at No. 24 Pittsburgh.
N.C. State trailed the Panthers by five and had 80 yards to go. Making things more complicated, Pittsburgh entered the game with the top defense in the ACC. The task was a tall one, yet Leary didn’t panic. He couldn’t, not with 10 guys in the huddle all looking at him.
One thought went through Leary’s mind as he walked on the turf: Go 1-0 on every play.
Leary didn’t go 1-0 on every snap of that final drive, but he won more than he lost and hit senior wide receiver Emeka Emezie for a 13-yard touchdown with 23 seconds remaining, leading the Wolfpack (2-1, 2-1) to a come-from-behind win over the Panthers (3-1, 2-1), 30-29.
On the biggest drive of his young career, Leary made believers out of N.C. State fans (not that they weren’t before). Outsiders have been calling for Leary to start all week, and he did just that against Pittsburgh. His first touchdown toss to Emezie, and second of the day for Leary, put the Wolfpack up 17-7 early in the second quarter. Leary finished with a career-high 336 passing yards and four touchdowns. He hit 11 different receivers, including four on the last drive.
When the game was on the line and it was put up or shut up time, Leary showed the ACC why he was anointed the starter back in the spring and why Dave Doeren and offensive coordinator Tim Beck believed in him so much. Bailey Hockman started the first two games of the season, and Doeren said they are going to need both quarterbacks to be elite this year. However, there is no doubt that the eighth-year coach has found his man.
“We’ve been waiting for him to become the guy,” Doeren said. “We’ve always known what his arm was. This team believes in him, you can see it in the locker room, they rally around him. He’s just calm and poised, has a really good arm, he’s a tough kid and played a heck of a football game.”
Coaches have faith in him
N.C. State named Leary the starter after five spring practices, and felt like there wouldn’t be a battle in fall camp. However, Leary missed 20 practices due to COVID-19 contract tracing and Hockman started the opener, a win over Wake Forest.
Doeren ensured everyone that both quarterbacks were being evaluated weekly, and that Leary was catching up on the time he had missed.
After his third interception of the season in the second half against Virginia Tech, Hockman was pulled and Leary, who started five games in 2019, made his season debut. A blowout loss to the Hokies would have looked a lot worse if not for Leary, who led the team on two scoring drives late in the game.
That scoring drive streak continued early against the Panthers. N.C. State’s opening drive was 17 plays, covering 75 yards, ending with a Leary 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cary Angeline, the first of two scoring hookups on the day for that duo. On the opening drive Leary completed five passes to four different targets. He connected six of his eight passes, including a perfectly thrown 35-yard score to Emezie, putting the Wolfpack up 17-7.
Leary wasn’t just throwing lasers, but he was getting rid of the ball quickly, spreading it around, keeping Pittsburgh at bay. It was the kind of command that Wolfpack fans expect at that position, alongside the likes of Phillip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon, Ryan Finley and Jacoby Brissett, all former N.C. State quarterbacks on NFL rosters.
“He’s always had it,” Emezie said about Leary.
It is the arm talent, but it’s also the mental part of the game. Take the game-winning score for example. Emezie said that wasn’t even the play drawn up, but Leary saw something in the defense he liked, told the coaches and they went with it.
“Coach having faith in him, him having faith in me,” Emezie said. “That was just a blessing right there. He’s so confident in himself, he’s just a confident player.”
‘You get calm, too’
Even with the game on the line, Emezie said Leary was calm. The 1:44 remaining on the clock was more time than they get in practice when the team goes through these situations.
“It was good to see from your quarterback,” Emezie said. “You get calm, too, and you’re just like, whatever.”
Leary’s mentality of going 1-0 on each play worked like a charm. He hit Emezie for 10 yards on first down and Thayer Thomas for nine. That set up a 22-yard pass to Angeline, followed by a five-yard pass to Thomas. Leary quickly found himself 4-0 and in Pitt territory.
“It’s just something we practice every single week,” Leary said. “Usually in practice we practice with under 1:44. Having everyone on the same page was critical. You just take it play-by-play. Just winning every play, that’s kind of how I take it, mentally.”
The big play on the drive came on fourth and nine when he hit Thomas for a gain of 14. Two plays later he found Emezie’s back shoulder for the game winner.
“Like Coach (Tim) Beck always says, ‘give our guys a chance,’” Leary recalled. “It was very helpful for our offensive line to give me time back there and give those guys a shot.”
With Leary, a full arsenal of receivers, healthy offensive line and running backs, the N.C. State offense has a shot to be good. Leary started the last five games of 2019 behind a makeshift offensive line, a revolving door at running back and a new wideout group. The game against Pittsburgh was the first time Leary played with a full deck and he showed what that unit can look like when healthy. The offense had 398 yards, with a season-high 336 in the air. Leary didn’t just drop the ball off all day, either, stretching the defense by tossing it vertical several times.
And the game on the line he had ice water in his veins.
“Devin was nails, man,” Doeren said. “That’s what they (the team) needs. It was nice to see him with starting wideouts and starting offensive linemen and three rotational tailbacks and all the tight ends. I think you got a good glimpse of what he is and what he could be.”
T1. Clemson 2-0 (3-0)
T1. Miami 2-0 (3-0)
T1. UNC 2-0 (2-0)
T1. Virginia Tech 2-0 (2-0)
5. Notre Dame 1-0 (2-0)
T6. N.C. State 2-1 (2-1)
T6. Pittsburgh 2-1 (3-1)
T8. Boston College 1-1 (2-1)
T8. Virginia 1-1 (1-1)
T8. Georgia Tech 1-1 (1-2)
11. Syracuse 1-2 (1-2)
T12. Louisville 0-2 (1-2)
T12. Florida State 0-2 (1-2)
T12. Wake Forest 0-2 (1-2)
15. Duke 0-4 (0-4)
SATURDAY’S COLLEGE FOOTBALL SCORES
Army 55, Abilene Christian 23
NC State 30, Pittsburgh 29
North Carolina 26, Boston College 22
West Virginia 27, Baylor 21, 2OT
Alabama 52, Texas A&M 24
Arkansas 21, Mississippi St. 14
Clemson 41, Virginia 23
Coastal Carolina 52, Arkansas St. 23
FAU 21, Charlotte 17
Florida 38, South Carolina 24
Florida St. 41, Jacksonville St. 24
Georgia 27, Auburn 6
Georgia Southern 35, Louisiana-Monroe 30
Georgia St. 49, East Carolina 29
LSU 41, Vanderbilt 7
Liberty 28, North Alabama 7
Mississippi 42, Kentucky 41, OT
Tennessee 35, Missouri 12
Tulsa 34, UCF 26
UAB 21, UTSA 13
Virginia Tech 38, Duke 31
W. Kentucky 20, Middle Tennessee 17
Cincinnati 28, South Florida 7
Iowa St. 37, Oklahoma 30
Kansas St. 31, Texas Tech 21
Oklahoma St. 47, Kansas 7
SMU 30, Memphis 27
Southern Miss. 41, North Texas 31
TCU 33, Texas 31
Air Force 40, Navy 7