It's no secret that Jay Davis has some big shoes to fill. And now that the big feet of Philip Rivers are gone, NC State fans might be appreciating the four-year starter's accomplishments more than ever, least of which being leading the team to an 8-4 record his freshman year. With the exception of Jamie Barnette, another four-year Wolfpack starter who preceded Rivers, that kind of thing doesn't happen too often.
So, perhaps we can forgive Jay Davis if he throws three interceptions in his first start against a division I-A opponent. That opponent was Ohio State, after all, who just happened to be the 13th best scoring defense last year.
Without question, it was a harrowing experience for the redshirt junior from Clearwater, Florida. The penetrating Buckeye pass rushers likely hit Davis with a bit more force and ferocity than, say, the Wolfpack's scrimmaging first team defense. Those kind of hits can make an uncertain quarterback hear footsteps, and Davis was clearly rattled at times. On many occasions when he had plenty of time and no one around him, Davis appeared to chuck the pass and then immediately turn to see where the defenders were, or to brace himself for a hit that would never come.
The Buckeye linebackers also frequently fell back into traps in the backfield, getting their fingertips on many of the short out patterns Davis probably had thought would be the safer throws to make. Instead, all three interceptions were made on those kinds of passes.
Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato conceded that Davis was confused. "They had a great defense," said Amato. "Our quarterback was scratching his helmet."
Last year Philip Rivers diagnosed those defensive sets and either audibled a new play, made a different throw, or forced a dangerous pass in and still made the completion. In the losing effort, Rivers completed 36 of 52 attempts for 312 yards and four touchdowns. In contrast, this year Davis went 12 of 24 for only 99 yards and one touchdown. And yes, those three interceptions. However, fans may have forgotten that even the senior Rivers threw two in Columbus last year. Remember, Ohio State has a good defense.
Speaking of remembering, lets not also forget Davis' one touchdown pass. With 3:08 remaining in the game and the Pack down 22-7, Davis led the team on an 11-play, 79-yard drive capped by a 26-yard frozen rope to Brian Clark streaking across the back of the end zone. Given plenty of time on a play where the Buckeyes didn't blitz but flooded the backfield, Davis looked well past his first option, hung in the pocket and found the open man with 1:28 still left in the game. On that drive, late in the fourth quarter with State needing a touchdown desperately, Davis showed he could manage the clock and make plays under pressure, completing 5 of 8 passes for 51 yards.
Playing behind Rivers last year, Davis got a first-hand view of how to play the position in the ACC, but at the same time, playing behind the 51-game starter did not afford him many snaps. Said Davis, "Experience comes with playing. I played a game today and got some experience. It just wasn't the kind that I wanted." Nor that fans wanted, but as evidenced by his final drive, Davis showed that even within the time span of one game he can learn from his mistakes.
So, maybe Wolfpackers can do Davis a favor and not be so eager for redshirt sophomore Marcus Stone's turn at throwing touchdowns and interceptions. Watching a new quarterback take his lumps is a relatively foreign experience for State fans. In the last eight years, State fans have only had to watch their team break in a new quarterback two other times. By comparison, tomorrow's opponent Virginia Tech has gone through five starting quarterbacks in that same period (not including platooning Marcus Vick with current starter Bryan Randall last year). Though it might seem unnecessary, for many teams, a first-year starter doesn't always play his best football at the beginning of the year, much less against former national champions.
Tomorrow afternoon Davis will line up against another national power in Virginia Tech, and unlike his last game, this one will be in a hostile environment. Even if he again struggles, perhaps when he returns to Raleigh to play Wake Forest the following week, he'll be greeted by a cheering stadium of supporters, rather than another hostile environment.