Rolling Sevens With Geno
It was halftime, heavily favored West Virginia was trailing Marshall by four points and the Mountaineers were without their starting quarterback.
West Virginia was losing to a school that considers the Friends of Coal Bowl more like a yearly crusade than a football game, and the halftime stat sheet for the Mountaineers looked worse than Bluto Blutarsky’s midterm grades.
Some of West Virginia’s most hardened, combat-experienced football rooters were tempted to go into the corner and start breathing into bags – just about everyone that is except for 18-year-old freshman quarterback Geno Smith.
“You don’t need to settle Geno down,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. “I’m telling you, he’s got ice water in his veins. He’s cool – very cool.”
At the break West Virginia had three points, three first downs and 84 yards of offense against a good but not great Marshall defense. Then in the second half, cool-as-a-cucumber Smith led the Mountaineers to three touchdowns and 229 yards of offense in a 24-7 triumph.
Apparently the water Smith has been drinking down in Miami must be a little colder than it is up here.
“It comes from my mom,” Smith shrugged. “She’s really my biggest critic and she always tells me that I have to get better every day with the little things – not just looking at the big picture, but always looking at the little things.”
Mullen says recruiting competitors like Geno Smith is a lot like hitting inside straights in poker – it’s not a very easy thing to do.
“It’s something you try to look for in recruiting but you’re really rolling sevens on that one,” Mullen said. “When you’re coaching a guy you can tell, but from the sidelines you’re not sure. Doc Holliday did a great job figuring that one out and getting him here, that’s for sure.”
During the second half flurry against Marshall Smith made four key passes that turned the game around. The first one was a roll of the dice when Stewart decided to go for it on fourth and 10 at the Herd 27 on West Virginia’s opening possession of the second half.
Smith was flushed out of the pocket, stumbled past a pair of blitzers, kept his eyes trained down the field and hit Jock Sanders for a 13-yard first down. One play later Noel Devine was celebrating in the end zone.
“That was a big, crucial play,” said injured quarterback Jarrett Brown of Smith’s fourth-down pass.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter Smith hooked up with Wes Lyons along the sideline for a 29-yard pass that flipped field position. Two plays after that on third down, Smith fired a laser out in the flat to Will Johnson for a first down. Then Geno capped the drive by putting one Peyton Manning-like right into the arms of Alric Arnett in the back of the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown.
“Geez,” said Marshall’s Mark Snyder, “that was just a great throw and catch. It was great coverage.”
Brown and the rest of the guys on the sideline just looked at each other in amazement. They all saw the ball hit the turf before Smith calmly picked it up and threw the touchdown pass (think back to the Steve Slaton play during his freshman year in 2005 when he dropped the ball in the end zone, picked it up, and then outran the entire Virginia Tech defense for a six-yard gain that drew a standing ovation).
“He was patient enough to grab the ball, keep his eyes up while knowing the coverage, and he put it in a spot where only Arnett could catch it,” Brown said. “That was just a great play.”
Not that he needs it – but the guys were also able to bust on Smith for trying to run over those two Marshall DBs late in the game in an unsuccessful attempt to get a first down. There were some giggles in the quarterback room when that play came up on the video screen.
“We got on him a little bit about that one,” laughed Brown. “I told him he’s got to put on some weight.”
All through the game Mullen was on the phones with Smith reminding him to stay calm and to continue making his reads. In reality, it was probably Mullen’s way of calming himself down while trying to figure out what plays to call with a true freshman quarterback that has only been on campus since this summer.
“He was just keeping me ready for the next series,” Smith said.
Like all good coaches, Mullen says there is plenty of room for growth with Smith. What looks black and white to us is a little grayer to him. He says Smith doesn’t fully understand how to prepare for games as a starting quarterback - yet.
“He did a lot of the freshmen mistakes that I don’t think a lot of people recognized,” Mullen admitted. “There were a lot of things in that game that he needs to improve upon.”
Then a few moments later, Mullen tried to describe to reporters what it’s like going into a college football game as the backup quarterback for the very first time.
“Backup quarterback is the hardest position to play in sports because you get a third of the reps but everybody expects him to play like a starter,” he said. “You can’t go play a game of pickup basketball. You can’t go in the batting cage and get your timing down.
“You cannot simulate the speed of the game in practice because you can’t hit them. You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to play.”
For Mullen, the most encouraging part of Smith’s performance happened when he was struggling to move the team early in the game.
“The first two or three throws he had he got jacked up and the kid got up off the turf and continued to play,” Mullen said.
West Virginia found out last Saturday that freshman Geno Smith can win football games for the Mountaineers. If Brown can’t play this weekend against Connecticut, that’s a reassuring feeling for a WVU team about to head into the meat of its schedule.
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