There were too many times last year, especially in league play, where Ryan Finley was just adequate. I’ve made the point before, but I’ll make it again: for N.C. State to be good this year Finley needs to be great. He was certainly up to the task on Saturday.
Finley competed a school-record 45 passes for 415 yards with a pair of touchdowns, and ran for a touchdown, in the Wolfpack’s 35-28 loss to South Carolina.
As good as Finley was, the most amazing part of the junior quarterback’s performance had nothing to do with all those numbers.
How Finley emerged from a sack early in the third quarter in one piece defies logical human anatomy. On third-and-10 from his own 33, Finley eluded the initial pressure from linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams but was caught by defensive end Bryson Sawyer at the 14-yard line.
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Sawyer wrapped up Finley and Finley’s left ankle got caught under Sawyer’s body (he’s 275 pounds) and it turned about 80 degrees in the wrong direction.
Finley fumbled on the play and was understandably slow to get up, but he was right back on the field the next series after getting his left ankle taped.
As Florida State learned, if you think losing the opener is bad, trying losing the opener and your quarterback. In that sense, N.C. State was lucky.
If not for a few special teams mistakes, Finley’s performance would have been the talk of the game. He broke Philip Rivers’ school-record for completions (38 in a loss to Wake Forest in 2003) and his 64 attempts were the most by an N.C. State quarterback since Shane Montgomery’s 73 in a loss to Duke in 1989.
(Note: Somewhere a defensive coordinator is begging you to make the correlation between record pass attempts/completions and the outcome of the game).
Here’s the breakdown of Finley’s throws:
His best throw was actually one of two in the upper left corner of that chart. He threw a beautiful timing route to Jakobi Meyers on N.C. State’s last drive. Meyers was open down the left sideline, and Finley dropped the ball between the cornerback and safety, but Meyers wasn’t able to come up with the catch. Actually, of Finley’s 19 incompletions, four were dropped by a receiver and three were intentional throwaways.
Here’s the breakdown of who Finley targeted:
Perhaps the most encouraging part of N.C. State’s performance on offense (504 total yards, 29 first downs) was the frequency with which Finley went to senior Jaylen Samuels. Finley targeted Samuels 17 times. Samuels equaled Torry Holt’s school-record for receptions in a game with 15 (he also dropped two passes).
Compare that to the last time Samuels played at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. In a bowl loss to Mississippi State in 2015, Samuels only touched the ball four times (and scored two touchdowns) and infamously left a rain-soaked, muddy field with a clean jersey.
Samuels wasn’t the only receiver who had a strong performance. Sophomore Kelvin Harmon led the team with 114 receiving yards and caught 10 passes – that’s as many passes as he caught in the last five games of 2016 combined.
Meyers, save for the last drop, stood out as well, with five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.
On the negative side, junior Stephen Louis struggled. He fumbled in the second quarter, setting up a South Carolina touchdown, and was never quite in the flow of the game. Louis led the Wolfpack with 678 receiving yards last season.
Finley, by the way, has thrown for 650 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in consecutive starts against SEC opponents.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio