North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren hinted a week ago that offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz had a good feel for which player to select as the Wolfpack’s starting quarterback.
What Doeren didn’t suggest was how long ago Drinkwitz kept it to himself to give Ryan Finley the starting nod over Jalan McClendon for the Pack’s season opener against William & Mary.
With the way Finley performed in N.C. State’s 48-14 victory Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium, he must have been comfortable for much more than the past week.
Maybe when Finley arrived in May as a graduate transfer with immediate eligibility. Perhaps as far back as last season, when both Drinkwitz and Finley were at Boise State.
Drinkwitz was the Boise offensive coordinator and Finley the starting quarterback until a season-ending injury early in the third game. Doeren hired Drinkwitz as his new offensive coordinator after he made the difficult decision to replace Matt Canada.
Finley and McClendon were originally expected to share the quarterback role to start the season, but Finley directed four touchdown drives in the first half for a 28-7 lead and remained on the field to start second half.
Finley finished 17-of-21 for 174 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. McClendon was 6-of-9 for 88 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
McClendon, a 6-5, 212-pound sophomore, is considered the better runner, but the two players’ stats were similar. McClendon ran six times for five yards on Thursday, and Finley five times for six yards.
Finley was on the field for the first two possessions that ended in touchdowns and a 14-7 lead. McClendon took the field with 11:24 left in the second quarter. He drove the Wolfpack from its 12-yard line to the William & Mary 38, but he was intercepted on a third-and-8 pass.
Finley returned to finish the first half with two more touchdown drives. He also started the third quarter and directed a scoring drive for a 35-14 lead. McClendon directed the final TD drive, which ended on a 1-yard run by redshirt freshman Johnny Frasier with 8:02 left in the game.
“Ryan’s drives were scoring drives, (McClendon’s) was a pick and Ryan goes back in and scores and scores,” Doeren told the media after the game. “Ryan scored 28 points in the first half. It was more a product of that. We talked at halftime, and I said I want Jalan back in the game. He needs to learn from it.
“When Jalan came off (after the interception) I said, ‘Hey, you made a bad choice. Throw it away and live for the next down.’ He said, ‘Yes sir.’ I said, ‘Make up for it.’ ”
One of two other encouraging signs for N.C. State was that Drinkwitz fed the ball to senior running back Matt Dayes and junior fullback/tight end Jalen Samuels. One of the criticisms of Canada was he didn’t consistently get the ball to his best players.
Dayes, a 5-foot-9, 203-pounder, finished with 23 carries for 138 yards and two touchdowns runs on carries of 5 and 4 yards. He also caught two passes for 18 yards.
Samuels, a 5-11, 223-pounder, ran five times for 24 yards and two TDs and caught five balls for 66 yards and one touchdown. His scoring runs were 3 and 8 yards and his six-point reception was an 18-yarder.
The other sign of improvement N.C. State needed to demonstrate was preventing big plays. William & Mary’s longest run was 13 yards, although DeVonte Dedmon did catch a long pass of 32 yards and a 16-yard TD for the Tribe.
William & Mary is a Football Championship Subdivision member, but it’s capable of upsetting Football Bowl Subdivision members. The Tribe was ranked No. 10 in the FCS coaches’ preseason poll. William & Mary upset Virginia in 2009. The Tribe threw scares into Power Five opponents, losing by less than a touchdown against Virginia (2015), West Virginia (2013), Maryland (2012) and North Carolina (2010).
The win behind a new quarterback is comforting, but N.C. State still has much to prove, beginning with next week’s game at pesky East Carolina. The Wolfpack were off to a 4-0 start last year with wins over Troy, FCS member Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama.
That didn’t last. N.C. State only beat Wake Forest, Boston College and Syracuse in ACC play. The Wolfpack lost the Belk Bowl to Mississippi State, 51-28, to finish 8-5 after the fast start.
It’s falling upon Finley to produce more this year. His first night as a member of the Wolfpack was encouraging, but it has to lead to bigger and better things.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055