RALEIGH — Through the first two quarters, Thursday night’s matchup against Virginia Tech looked like it was going to be the final nail in the coffin for NC State’s season.
In a season that started out with tons of hype, the Wolfpack quickly derailed after the team’s offensive struggles culminated with a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Devin Leary on Oct. 8 against Florida State.
Heading into halftime of last week’s Virginia Tech game, the teams had combined for only 176 yards of total offense, another example of the Wolfpack’s sputtering offense.
In the third quarter, MJ Morris arrived, and as that moment grew, so did the true freshman quarterback.
Morris had split the first half snaps with graduate Jack Chambers, but entering halftime, it was clear who the Wolfpack needed to hand the keys to the rest of the way. While Chambers was 6 of 13 for 31 yards, Morris was 4 of 5 for 52 yards.
“[Morris] was moving us better,” said coach Dave Doeren on the decision to go with Morris for the rest of the game. “I thought Jack missed some throws that were there. And I just thought (Morris) was more accurate. They both ran the ball fine, but we need to be able to throw the football.”
Morris took over in the second half, going 16-of-24 passing for 213 yards and three touchdowns in the final 30 minutes to lead to 19 straight points and a comeback victory.
It wasn’t all checkdowns and runs for the Wolfpack either — Morris moved the ball downfield with efficiency, throwing strikes on deep balls and threading passes between defenders.
“To see that score and the fact that we had come back from down 18,” Morris said after the game. “We kept fighting every play. We went in there risking our bodies, just going out there and doing what we’ve gotta do just to win. We were all just extremely happy, just extremely joyful just to be there.”
With Leary being touted as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, the highly touted recruit from Georgia wasn’t expected to get many reps throughout the season. Coming into campus for the second session of summer school, Morris had only been with the team for five months, and he was firmly planted at the bottom of the depth chart.
“It’s hard to get three players ready, period,” Doeren said. “And when you’re talking about quarterbacks, it’s an impossible thing to do. To MJ’s credit, he would stand behind our offense and was very diligent about mental reps and going through the play behind Devin or Jack.”
And it wasn’t even until about a week before the Hokies game that Morris started to get actual, physical reps.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t really, this whole season, taken many reps with [Morris] at all,” said graduate receiver Thayer Thomas. “So during the bye week, they really interchanged the quarterbacks just to get a feel and try to build as much chemistry as we could in a short week. It’s just a blessing that he went out there and played the way he did, especially in the second half.”
Now Morris will be getting the nod and become the first true freshman to start for NC State since Philip Rivers in 2000 when the Wolfpack host No. 20 Wake Forest.
“They’re coming off of a tough loss and an uncharacteristic game for them turning the ball over,” Doeren said of the Demon Deacons, who had eight turnovers in a 48-21 loss at Louisville. “They were second in the league in turnover margin prior to that game, but they’re very well coached. It’ll be a great challenge, great opportunity.”
If the Wolfpack is going to build off its win in Blackburg, it will likely come down to Morris.
But the first-time starter isn’t afraid of the challenge and is ready to again rise to the occasion.
“Even though I’m young, I try to bring out those leadership qualities and be more vocal to the team because I know our team is going to react off of my energy,” Morris said. “If my energy is low then probably everybody else’s is going to be low, so I try to keep the best energy out there.”
Win or lose, NC State has perhaps found its quarterback of the future in MJ Morris.