RALEIGH — Ready or not, the NC State football team is about to begin the ACC portion of its 2019 schedule.
Whether the Wolfpack is actually ready or not is hard to say based on its four nonconference tests leading up to Saturday’s conference opener against Florida State.
Coach Dave Doeren’s team began the season with lopsided wins against outclassed in-state rivals before having some of its flaws exposed in a road loss at West Virginia. After sleepwalking through the second half of its final tuneup against Ball State last Saturday, the book is still out just where the Wolfpack fits into the ACC Atlantic Division pecking order.
But sophomore quarterback Matthew McKay is anxious to start finding out.
“It’s a little different getting into ACC play,” McKay said on Tuesday. “There’ll be better opponents, as you know. But I’m excited to get down there and get things going.”
As enigmatic as State might be heading into the conference schedule, then Florida State is even more of a wild card.
The Seminoles have outscored their opponents by a whopping 56-9 margin in the first quarter of their games. But because they haven’t been able to sustain those fast starts, they’re still just 2-2 (1-1 ACC) after squandering second half leads against Boise State and Virginia.
Even their wins have been less than impressive, having to go to overtime to survive a challenge from Louisiana-Monroe before rallying to beat a rebuilding Louisville squad a week ago.
Those early-season struggles have put second-year coach Willie Taggart squarely on the hot seat — to the point that a young fan in Tallahassee even set up a lemonade stand to help raise money for Taggart’s $17 million buyout.
It’s a drama that has led many around the ACC — and nationally, for that matter — to dismiss Florida State as the college football equivalent of the Titanic taking on water fast.
But Doeren isn’t among them.
“If they play like the first quarter for four quarters, they’re killing people,” the Wolfpack coach said. “They’re up 56-9 at the end of the first quarter right now, so I’m sure they’re talking about being a four-quarter football team.
“They’re like all of us. You want to play your best football for four quarters. They’ve got really, really talented players on that field. Their offensive skill is elite at every spot.”
There is, however, a question as to who will be at quarterback for the Seminoles on Saturday.
Starter James Blackman is listed as day-to-day with a knee injury that forced him to the sidelines during the third quarter of last week’s win against Louisville. But he might not play even if he’s ready physically, thanks to the performance of his replacement Alex Hornibrook.
A graduate transfer from Wisconsin, Hornibrook completed 15 of 20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns to lead the team to victory.
Florida State might not be the only team in the game ready to make a quarterback change. There are also subtle signs that the Wolfpack may also be ready for some new blood under center after a second half against Ball State that saw McKay complete only one of his seven passes for a single yard.
Adding to the speculation is the fact that Doeren and his staff found a way to work backup Bailey Hockman into the game plan for a meaningful series early in the second quarter of last Saturday’s game.
Asked Tuesday if the competition for the starting quarterback job has been reopened, Hockman smiled coyly and said only that he’s “not at mercy to say that.
“I’m just working my hardest. Matt is too and so is (third-stringer) Devin (Leary),” said Hockman, who started his college career at Florida State before transferring to a junior college last year. “That’s all we can do, just come to work.”
Regardless of who takes the first snap, Doeren said that his team won’t approach this game any differently than the four that preceded it simply because it’s a conference opponent.
“You can look at it from the outside in and, all right, now the stakes are different. For us, they’re not,” Doeren said. “We’re looking at this as the next game, the next opportunity.
“I said that from the beginning of the season, our players were very adamant about having a 1-0 mentality each week and not getting too up or too down trying to play to the level of your competition. That’s going to be the same message no matter who we’re playing because that’s what these guys have asked for.”