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RALEIGH — It’s now Ryan Finley’s third season since transferring from Boise State, and by now, the senior N.C. State quarterback has had the time to digest almost any scheme opposing defensive coordinators can throw his way.
Saturday’s 35-21 win over Virginia to open Atlantic Coast Conference play in Carter-Finley Stadium was an extension of Finley’s efficiency to date as the Wolfpack, who returned to The Associated Press Top 25 at No. 23 on Sunday, remained unbeaten through four games.
He’s only been sacked twice in 2018, and the Cavaliers’ defense was the latest group not to record a takedown. The offensive line of redshirt senior Tyler Jones, redshirt senior Terronne Prescod, center Garrett Bradbury, sophomore Josh Fedd-Jackson and redshirt sophomore Justin Witt kept Finley’s jersey clean, allowing plays to be extended and finding receivers downfield.
“He just has to be smart and not put the defense in a bad spot,” N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren said of Finley. “He has really good wideouts and he’s going to trust what he sees, and he has the green light all day long. Nobody’s perfect, so I’m not saying he won’t make a mistake.”
Finley did fumble, but quickly atoned for it. He finished 22 of 32 for 257 yards and three TDs to three different receivers without an interception.
In the second quarter, N.C. State led 10-7 and faced fourth-and-1 from the Virginia (3-2, 1-1 ACC) 16. Finley kept the football, but fumbled it before reaching the first-down marker. The ball was fumbled forward and recovered by Finley, which allowed the Wolfpack to maintain possession.
Finley’s recovery was crucial in that instance. Since it was fourth down, only he was allowed to recover a fumble that propelled forward. Had an N.C. State player recovered past the line to gain, then the ball would have been given to Virginia at the spot of the fumble. Instead, Finley found redshirt sophomore tight end Cary Angeline for a 14-yard strike two plays later, extending the Wolfpack’s lead to 17-7. It was Angeline’s first touchdown catch with the Wolfpack since transferring from Southern California and becoming eligible prior to last week’s win at Marshall.
Finley played the role of maestro effectively, distributing the ball to eight different receivers. Ten seconds into the second quarter, he hit sophomore receiver Emeka Emezie for a 16-yard score where Emezie came back and battled through Virginia free safety Brenton Nelson in the end zone, winning the fight for the ball.
Emezie finished with five receptions for 90 yards. Finley who added a 16-yard pass to junior Kelvin Harmon with 3:08 to go, guided the ball downfield and finished off the drive by throwing a pinpoint back-shoulder throw to the corner. Harmon led the Wolfpack with six catches for 94 yards.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Finley said of his receiving corps. “I’m pretty blessed to throw the ball to those guys. There’s not a doubt in my mind that when the ball is in the air, all of those guys are going to come down with it. I put a couple of balls in jeopardy today.”
But “jeopardy” in Finley-land with his cast of characters still amounts to advantage Wolfpack.
“They’re not 50-50 balls,” Finley reasoned. “They’re 70-30 balls.”
While the offensive line cleared the way for 190 yards on the ground, Hunt High product Dexter Wright helped extinguish Virginia’s final threat. As the Cavaliers recovered an onside kick and drove to the Wolfpack 5-yard line, Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins had his pass tipped and intercepted by Wright, effectively ending the game.
“We do such a good job in pass protection,” Finley said. “It makes my job really easy. It’s like 7-on-7.”
Finley ranks second in the ACC in total passing yards with 1,313, trailing only Deondre Francois of Florida State at 1,377.
Saturday’s game was just the fourth time N.C. State and Virginia have played since the ACC expanded in 2004. The teams, from different ACC divisions and meeting for the 58th time, won’t see each other again until 2023.