Which quarterbacks beat NC State?
No starting quarterback has been named for Week 1, and it’s clear both of JMU’s leading candidates have different strengths. Which player gives the Dukes the best chance to pull off the upset over the Wolfpack?
In less than a week, JMU football will travel to Raleigh to take on NC State — an FBS power coming off a 9–4 campaign in the difficult Atlantic Coastal Conference. The Dukes have the odds stacked against them, as the Wolfpack have about an 85 percent chance to take care of business at home according to ESPN.
With the start of the season just days away, JMU head coach Mike Houston is yet to name a starting quarterback for the season opener. This pending decision will likely set the tone and direction for the season and decide the outcome of JMU’s biggest regular season game in years.
At this point, it’s highly likely the coaching staff has decided internally on a starter, but there’s little to be gained from sharing that information with the public. The lack of transparency from JMU’s coaches has led to much speculation as to who the favorite for the starting signal caller job, and it’s still anyone’s guess at this point.
In anticipation of what’s by far the most intriguing story surrounding JMU football’s off-season, I’ve dug deep into what the Dukes may have in transfer quarterback Ben DiNucci, examined Mike Houston’s past quarterbacks to see which passer may be the best fit in JMU’s offense, and now I’m taking a look at which quarterbacks have had success against NC State in the past.
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Here’s a breakdown of NC State’s four losses last season, including which quarterbacks beat them and how. Of course, there were several other deciding factors besides the opposing quarterback in play, but here’s a basic blueprint of how teams took down the Wolfpack in 2017.
First loss: South Carolina, 9–2–17
In the 2017 season opener, sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley led the Gamecocks past the Wolfpack by a score of 35–28. The 6–4, 224-pound passer went 17-for-29 with 215 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception and a passer rating of 148.1.
According to ESPN, Bentley “has been touted by some as an NFL-level quarterback” and showed his arm talent with accuracy and touch. He made plays from the pocket and some with his feet, including a remarkable throw on the run for a 39-yard score.
It’s fair to say the Dukes don’t have any quarterback of that caliber on the roster. However, DiNucci is a more mobile player than fellow junior Cole Johnson and could give an NC State pass rush now without superstar Bradley Chubb some trouble.
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Second loss: No. 9 Notre Dame, 10–28–17
In a Week 8 matchup, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush navigated the Fight Irish past NC State by a score of 35–14. Wimbush finished 10-of-19 passing with 104 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions for a passer rating of 133.3.
Wimbush didn’t do much more than managing the game for Notre Dame as junior running back Josh Adams finished with 202 yards on the ground. The 6–1, 222-pound Notre Dame signal caller was efficient and effective and did what he needed to do without turning the ball over while allowing Adams to steal the show with 28 touches.
If the JMU coaching staff opts for a quarterback who can manage the game effectively while relying on the running game, Johnson is likely the best option. The backfield should be one of JMU’s greatest strengths this season and Johnson has already shown he can step aside and guide the team to success. In 2016, Johnson led JMU to a victory as a freshman after going 12-of-13 for 274 yards and two touchdowns while the Dukes racked up 368 yards on the ground.
Third loss: No. 6 Clemson, 11–4–17
The next week, junior quarterback Kelly Bryant put the Tigers past the Wolfpack in a narrow 38–31 contest. The 6–4, 220-pound Bryant went 20-of-38 passing with 191 yards, one touchdown, and one interception for a passer rating of 98.3.
This time, NC State forced its opponent to throw more times than it ran, and while it wasn’t an overly efficient performance, Bryant did enough to get the job done. The Clemson quarterback resorted to check-downs and shorter throws with just 5.0 yards per attempt while picking up 88 yards on the ground on 20 rushing attempts.
In Clemson’s offense, the quarterback has a heavy workload, as Bryant’s 38 passes and 20 rushes made up nearly 80 percent of the team’s plays from scrimmage. If the Dukes were to employ a similar strategy against the Wolfpack in the season opener, the mobility of DiNucci would allow the team to execute run-pass options to keep the defense on its toes.
Fourth loss: Wake Forest, 11–18–17
In a mid-November matchup, senior quarterback John Wolford lifted the Demon Deacons over the Wolfpack by a 30–24 decision. The 6–1, 200-pound Wolford went 19-of-28 passing with 247 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception for a passer rating of 170.2.
Interestingly enough, NC State dominated time of possession, controlling the ball for over 41 minutes. Three Wolfpack turnovers and an efficient performance from Wolford — who averaged 8.8 yards per attempt — led to NC State’s demise. Wolford showed off a beautiful deep ball— which is said to be a trait of Johnson — as well as mobility on run-pass option plays one may expect to see if DiNucci runs JMU’s offense.
This upcoming game will be a pivotal point for JMU football — not just in 2018, but in the near future. A win would be another huge step forward for the program on a national stage against a Power Five opponent while a loss would likely quell whispers the Dukes may soon move up to the FBS.
Offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick has praised the play of DiNucci and Johnson this off-season and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of both players starting at different points this season.
“[Both] are playing well and that’s a good problem to have,” Kirkpatrick told WHSV Sports on August 14th.
While there’s a chance both will play in the season opener, there can only be one starter. DiNucci has a skill set more similar to that of former JMU quarterback Bryan Schor and can make plays with his feet like Bentley, Bryant, and Wolford. However, Johnson has been in JMU’s offense longer and could effectively manage the game for the Dukes while stretching the field like Notre Dame’s Wimbush.
Whoever the Dukes roll out as the starting quarterback on September 1, the odds will be stacked against him. Fortunately, Mike Houston’s team is used to being the underdog and will be eager to show the nation who JMU football is.