Leary is ‘money’ in leading Wolfpack to comeback victory

Quarterback Devin Leary threw his fourth TD pass of the game, with 23 seconds remaining, as NC State rallied for a 30-29 win at Pittsburgh

Emeka Emezie catches the game-winning touchdown in front of Pittsburgh defensive back Jason Pinnock in NC State's win on Saturday (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports courtesy of the ACC)

NC State football coach Dave Doeren described quarterback Devin Leary as “nails,” alluding to his toughness and calm under pressure.

“Money” might have been a more accurate description for Leary’s performance Saturday at Pittsburgh.


The redshirt sophomore threw for 336 yards and four touchdowns, including a 13-yarder to Emeka Emezie with 23 seconds remaining to lead the Wolfpack to a 30-29 upset of the 24th-ranked Panthers at Heinz Field.

Making his first start of the season after suffering a setback because of too many missed practices during preseason camp, Leary got State off on the right foot by leading scoring drives the first three times his team touched the ball. Then after Pitt rallied to take a late lead and with no timeouts remaining, he calmly drove the Wolfpack 79 yards on eight plays in the final 1:21 — including a key fourth down conversion — for the winning score.

Three thoughts

1. Doeren tried to play it coy in the days leading up to the game, suggesting that he wasn’t sure who would start at quarterback. But after Leary’s strong showing in relief of Bailey Hockman during the second half of last week’s loss at Virginia Tech, it was no secret that he would be the one to get the call. Leary gave a glimpse of why he’s the Wolfpack’s QB1 in his opening possession by leading an epic 17-play drive for a touchdown that answered a long Pitt touchdown pass on the game’s second play. Leary ended up completing 28 of 44 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. Six of those completions came on the decisive final drive.

2. A huge turning point in the game came midway through the second quarter when with State ahead 17-10, safety Jakeen Harris appeared to score a Wolfpack touchdown on a spectacular pick six. But instead of extending the lead, the six points were taken off the board because of a roughing the passer penalty. Adding insult to injury, freshman nickel Joshua Pierre-Louis was called for targeting on the play and ejected, leaving the State secondary that was already depleted by injury and contact tracing isolations even thinner. State was down so many players in its defensive backfield that wide receiver Max Fisher was moved to defense and several linebackers were forced into action at safety even though they’d never practiced at the position.

3. An even bigger turning point came midway though the third quarter when Pitt drove inside the Wolfpack 2-yard line with a chance to take the lead. But State’s defense held tough, stopping two straight runs into the line and sniffing out a rollout pass on third down, forcing Pitt’s Kenny Pickett to throw the ball away. Then on fourth down, linebacker Isaiah Moore and tackle Joshua Harris combined to stop running back Victor Davis for a loss, turning the Panthers away with no points. Although the defense gave up better than 500 yards, it still managed to come up with stops when it needed them to get the victory.

Numbers to Know

12 for 12 — State has scored points on all 12 of its red zone possessions this season, with 11 touchdowns. It was a perfect 3 for 3 Saturday at Pitt, all on touchdowns.

Player of the Game

Devin Leary, NC State quarterback — There were many heroes for the Wolfpack, including Emezie, leading tackler Tanner Ingle and its entire offensive line. But the star that stood out the most was Leary. Taking advantage of his first start this season, he went 28 of 44 for 336 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions — capping his performance with the game-winning drive in the final two minutes.

They Said It

“It’s one thing to believe, but it’s another to go do it. It’s a tremendous advantage to know that it doesn’t matter what’s on the clock, our quarterback will drive us down and score and win. … A lot of people wanted to throw us in the trash can after last week and these kids just hung together.”

— NC State coach Dave Doeren

Critical thinking

This was more than a win for the Wolfpack — it was a statement. Not only did the victory break a five-game road losing streak and give Doeren and his team its first road win against a ranked ACC opponent since 2017, it showed a resilience that last year’s edition didn’t have in slumping to a 4-8 record.

State overcame the loss of six key defensive backfield contributors, several momentum swings and a late fourth quarter deficit to rally for a win that doubles its ACC win total from last season and sets it up for a solid bounce-back year. Even more important, Doeren and new offensive coordinator Tim Beck may finally have found the franchise quarterback State has been lacking since Ryan Finley’s graduation with Leary stepping forward with a big, clutch performance.