Ben Finley was one of NC State’s few bright spots on an otherwise dark day in Chapel Hill two weeks ago.
But even though the true freshman came off the bench to light a temporary spark under the Wolfpack during a 48-21 loss to rival North Carolina, coach Dave Doeren isn’t ready for him to take over as the team’s starting quarterback.
That job still belongs to Bailey Hockman, who Doeren said will be under center when State takes on No. 11 Miami at Carter-Finley Stadium on Friday.
“We’re excited for Bailey,” Doeren said Monday at his regular weekly meeting with the media. “I thought he really did a great job coming into the game and playing at the end of last week’s game (at UNC).
“Ben will continue to develop and get reps. I’m glad we were able to get him some game reps. But it’s Bailey’s opportunity. He’s been through a lot. I know he’s excited to lead the football team and he’ll do a great job for us.”
Hockman has had his ups and downs in three starts this season.
He stepped in after Devin Leary missed too much of the preseason in contract tracing and led the Wolfpack to a win in its season opener against Wake Forest before being pulled after a subpar performance in a loss at Virginia Tech.
He took over again for the UNC game after Leary suffered a broken leg the previous week against Duke.
While things didn’t start well against the Tar Heels, Hockman finished strong by running for one touchdown and throwing for another late in the game to help make the score look somewhat more respectable.
In between, Finley made a splash with an eventful college debut.
He entered the game in the second quarter after State’s first three possessions went nowhere and immediately led his team on an eight-play, 61-yard drive that should have resulted in a touchdown. Instead, it ended with an interception when wide-open tight end Dylan Parham bobbled the ball into the arms of a defender in the end zone.
The younger brother of former Wolfpack star and current Cincinnati Bengals backup Ryan Finley later threw a touchdown pass to Emeka Emezie.
Although he showed his inexperience during a second half in which he committed a pair of turnovers, Finley’s 13-of-20, 143-yard performance before giving way back to Hockman was good enough to have Doeren thinking about giving him another shot in a change-of-pace role.
“I think there’s always opportunities to have plays for guys,” Doeren said without committing to anything, adding that he doesn’t want to “give Miami any ammo on what we’re going to be doing.
“But we need Ben to continue to get better. You saw when he had his package of plays, he moved the team. But when things got into a different mode, you could see it was a lot for him. So we just have to be smart with Ben.”
For all the fuss Finley caused among Wolfpack fans, it was Hockman’s finish that resonated most with his coach.
“Bailey operates our offense really well,” Doeren said. “I thought he threw the ball terrific in the game.”
Hockman was 14 of 24 for 215 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Tar Heels. For the season, he’s completing 58.6% of his passes for 531 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions.
State (4-2, 4-2 ACC) is coming off a badly needed open date that has allowed it to regroup and get at least some of its injured starters back.
It has also allowed Hockman to get more comfortable in his starting role now that Leary is out of the picture while giving Finley a chance to become more comfortable with the playbook.
Regardless of which quarterback is in the game, Doeren said his top priority has to be ball security for the Wolfpack to have a chance getting the second half of their disjointed 2020 season off to a winning start with an upset of the 5-1 (4-1) Hurricanes.
That’s something State did well earlier in the season. But after turning the ball over only four times in its first four games combined, it has given it away seven times over the past two — a come-from-behind win against Duke and the loss at UNC.
“On offense, the biggest thing we see is we’ve got to not turn the football over,” Doeren said. “The last two games, we’ve had seven turnovers. … So that area of our program has to improve as it was earlier in the season.”