Sam Howell entered the season with all the pub in the ACC as the quarterback to make a run at the Heisman Trophy. Howell’s North Carolina Tar Heels were a trendy pick to make the College Football Playoff in part because expectations for the junior quarterback were sky-high.

But it was Pitt’s Kenny Pickett who made the dash to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, seemingly out of nowhere. And it was Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman who picked up the non-Pickett attention. A down ACC—because of a down year from Clemson—meant the national spotlight didn’t quite find a third quarterback from the ACC with any kind of frequency. But here’s a fun fact: Devin Leary had one fewer touchdown toss than Hartman, nine fewer interceptions, and a completion rate nearly seven percentage points higher.

When the Wolfpack come up, quarterback Devin Leary is where you have to start any discussion.

The fourth-year quarterback took over the job full-time this year after splitting time last season and took off. He went for 3,433 yards (fourth in ACC), 35 scores (third) against only five interceptions, and completed 66% of his throws (third among qualified passers). The 35 touchdowns thrown are the most by a Wolfpack quarterback in the last 50 years.

The magic of Leary’s season is in the fact NC State hasn’t had a super efficient offense, it has just had one of the most explosive attacks on obvious passing downs. Leary picks up chunk plays when the defense would seemingly have the advantage. They’re bottom-40 in success rate and time spent in standard downs all while Leary is throwing it more often than not—57% pass. At 4.1 yards per carry gained from the rushing attack this season, the NC State ground game ranks 79th nationally.

Nothing about this offense screams “elite unit,” and yet they’re excellent in the red zone (17th-best score percentage) and generally get points when they cross the 40. With a future first-round draft pick in Ikem Ekwonu anchoring the line, NC State has been above-average at protecting its quarterback, too.

That poses an interesting matchup with UCLA. The Bruin run game vs. NC State front seven is drawing a ton of attention, but if UCLA can’t slow Leary when NC State has the ball that Bruin run game might be neutered.

Michigan State was the only Power Five team attacked more through the air than UCLA. Teams averaged 37 pass attempts against the Bruin secondary, the sixth-most in the country. Of course, UCLA’s ability to pile on the points somewhat mandated that—teams fell behind and had to play catch-up—and the two big losses on the schedule this season (ASU and Utah) featured the two fewest pass attempts faced. But UCLA was gettable through the air, nevertheless.

They struggled to get teams into passing downs and then struggled to stop teams on those downs, had one of the worst third-down defenses in the country (44% allowed, 114th), and ranked 58th in passing success rate allowed. This was not a havoc-creating defense. How that matches up with a semi-boom-or-bust offense will be interesting, especially so without Qwuantrezz Knight in the picture.

With Leary at the controls, NC State would probably have no problem abandoning the run game and relying on a passing attack to put points on the board. Whether it’ll be doing so to match points or build a lead probably won’t change that.

UCLA’s going to score. This is the country’s 16th-best point-producing offense and a top-10 scoring outfit among Power Five clubs. And the Wolfpack gave up an average of 30 points against the teams it played that finished with a winning record and 13 points per against the teams that finished with a losing record.

The San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl gets rolling Tuesday, Dec. 28, at 5 p.m. PT on FOX.

Names to Know:

  • WR Devin Carter: Emeka Emezie is the Pack’s leading receiver with just over 800 yards on 60 catches, but Carter is the big-play threat. He has as many touchdowns as Emezie (six) but on half the catches. The 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore averages 17.9 yards per catch this season, the fourth-best mark among qualified ACC wideouts.
  • RB Zonovan Knight: He’s the Wolfpack’s leading rusher, so… ya know… but he’s also a dynamic kick returner, and it’ll be important to not lose sight of him in that phase of the game. At 34.4 yards per kick return, Knight is statistically the best return man in the country and one of only 11 FBS players with multiple kick returns for touchdown this year.
  • LB Drake Thomas: In his third year with the program, Thomas was a star. The North Carolina native leads the team in tackles (99), he leads the team in tackles for loss (13.5), he’s tied for the team-lead in sacks (six), and he leads the team in interceptions (three). Thomas will be around the ball.


From Sunday’s big bowl preview:

… UCLA is 8-4 against the spread so far this year, 5-2 in the last seven, and the over is 7-3 in NC State’s last 10 and 4-1 in UCLA’s last five. This feels like it could be a 35-32 kind of game. I’ve got the Bruins outright.