ACC

Who was involved in the passing game in the West Virginia loss – and who wasn’t

N.C. State wide receiver Emeka Emezie (3) can’t pull in the pass while defended by West Virginia cornerback Hakeem Bailey (24) during the second half of West Virginia’s 44-27 victory over N.C. State at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.V., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.
N.C. State wide receiver Emeka Emezie (3) can’t pull in the pass while defended by West Virginia cornerback Hakeem Bailey (24) during the second half of West Virginia’s 44-27 victory over N.C. State at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.V., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The problem with playing too many games against lesser opponents is you save plays.

If you don’t have to empty the playbook to beat Western Carolina or Old Dominion or Troy, you don’t. Simple, really.

But when you step up in competition, you’re suddenly running plays you haven’t used in a game before or you’re running plays to your star players, who have been put on ice for a game or two.

With all of the schedule talk about N.C. State, since a 44-27 loss at West Virginia, that’s truly the No. 1 issue. This has happened every year (except for 2017 when South Carolina was the opener) under Dave Doeren. The 4-0 start in 2015, and then home loss to Louisville, was a perfect example of this.

You don’t have to go out and schedule the 1985 Bears or 2005 USC but you do have to put your players in a position where they’re not attempting to make plays for the first time when it “counts.”

After receiver Emeka Emezie had five targets in the 41-0 win over Western Carolina, you knew he would be more involved in the West Virginia game plan. Quarterback Matt McKay targeted Emezie an unbelievable 23 times (or nearly half of his 48 pass attempts) in the loss to WVU.

That’s not to say McKay and Emezie don’t get reps in practice but it’s not the same as a game, especially on the road against a team with equal talent.

McKay has struggled with getting the ball down field. Emezie is his best chance at improving that. Emezie’s 9.8 yards per catch is not a good sign for a No. 1 receiver.

Last year’s No. 1 receiver, Kelvin Harmon, averaged 14.6 yards per catch. Emezie also already has as many drops (unofficially) as Harmon had last season in 121 targets.

Of McKay’s 48 pass attempts, five went to running backs. He connected on three of those passes for five yards.

Given the distribution of talent on the roster and the personnel losses at receiver, N.C. State’s running backs should be the strength of the skill group. It would make sense to get the running backs more involved in the passing game. Freshman Jordan Houston, in particular, should be more active.

The issue there is McKay struggled with his screen passes and short looks to his backs. There is an art to those short passes to backs (Philip Rivers is the gold standard there).

McKay was high on a screen pass to running back Ricky Person in a key third-quarter drive at WVU. Person had to reach back for the ball and was stopped after a 2-yard pickup. Then N.C. State settled for a field goal.

With C.J. Riley injured (and out for the year), N.C. State needs the shot of speed graduate transfer Tabari Hines provides. Hines wasn’t very involved in the WVU game with only three targets. He did make a nice catch, and move, on an 11-yard pickup in the second quarter.

With WVU having so much success on the edge with jets, it was odd that N.C. State didn’t try to get Hines, Houston or Keyon Lesane involved in the same way.

Here is the full season breakdown. Check out this interactive table (click on the “sort by” tab to change the category order), which will be a weekly feature this season thanks to our partnership with NexS.com.

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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