Jed's Pregame Thoughts
The city of the Violet Crown awaits.
Austin has a population of more than 800,000 and Darrell K. Royal-Memorial Stadium plays host to more than 100,000. But West Virginia is only focused on 11 of them at a time.
With half a dozen first-team preseason all-Big 12 selections on display, including players of the year on both sides of the ball (WVU’s Geno Smith on offense; Texas’ Alex Okafor on defense) , the eyes of the nation will be on the Texas capital tonight when the Mountaineers (No. 8/No. 7) tangle with the Longhorns (No. 11/No. 9).
Here are three things to ponder as West Virginia makes its groundbreaking and star-studded inaugural Big 12 road trip.
#1 – THE BRILLIANCE OF GENO SMITH
This isn’t Heisman buzz, it’s Heisman BOOM! From the macro to the micro, there are few angles of Geno’s amazing start that remain unexplored. We’ve been awed by his accuracy and inspired by his art, and along the way we’ve been floored by the sheer magnitude of his early season numbers.
To appreciate the supreme clarity with which Geno Smith is playing the position right now, you don’t need to see his 87-yard scoring strike to Stedman Bailey last week; or his third and 15 touchdown toss to Tavon Austin from 34 yards out in the fourth quarter against Maryland; or even his 28-yard scoring scamper on a busted play in West Virginia’s rout of Marshall.
All you have to do is throw in the tape and watch his first of eight touchdown passes against the Baylor Bears, an outwardly modest 7-yard hook-up with J.D. Woods late in the opening frame.
West Virginia faced a second down and goal from the Baylor 7-yard line. With the ball on the left hash, the Mountaineers lined up in an “empty” set with five receivers, including two to the boundary on the left and a trips look on Geno’s right to the wide side of the field.
Baylor countered by matching heads in man coverage across the board. On the interior the Bears offered up three defenders with their hand in the dirt and three linebackers in blitz positions behind them. On the snap, Baylor rushed all six against the Mountaineers five blockers. In a cagey move, nose tackle Nick Johnson engaged WVU center Joey Madsen long enough to occupy Madsen and create an open blitz lane for inside linebacker Eddie Lackey. At that point, Johnson bailed into coverage just a few yards downfield, on the alert for shallow crossing routes. The damage had already been done – or so Baylor thought – as Lackey shot uncontested through the weak side A-gap between Madsen and left guard Josh Jenkins who was busy blocking Baylor’s Terrance Lloyd.
Another problem for West Virginia?
Left tackle Quinton Spain reacted to the inside rush with his first step to help Jenkins on Lloyd, then recognized too late that the Bears were also bringing edge pressure with a blitz by strong safety Sam Holl. Spain recovered but not in full. As Holl ran the hump toward Geno Smith the West Virginia tackle stretched with all his might to give the defensive back a desperate nudge in the opposite direction.
With the ball in his hands Geno was confronted almost immediately with not one but two unblocked blitzers. When the ratio of pass rushers outnumbers the pass protectors, it’s incumbent upon the signal caller himself to recognize this and make his read quickly enough to get rid of the football and avoid major trouble.
As you might have guessed, Geno did exactly that.
The route concept the Mountaineers presented was as creative as Geno was quick-minded. On the trips side of the formation, Tavon Austin was lined up on the inside slot with Jordan Thompson just a few yards outside of him and J.D. Woods flanked wide right. On the snap, Tavon exploded up field for four yards before stopping on a dime to turn and show his hands to Geno. Austin might lead the nation in receiving, but on this play he would merely serve as the most inviting decoy in college football. Thompson, meanwhile, made a jab step up field before turning back to face the football, then backpedaling in a flat line toward the Baylor sideline. To the outside, Woods pushed hard for a single step before breaking sharply toward the goal post on a slant that put him over top of the activity being orchestrated by Austin and Thompson.
This is one of countless route combinations in the Dana Holgorsen arsenal that would create a natural void even against a zone coverage. Against man-to-man with a blitz on, it’s almost unfair.
Geno had taken the snap at the 11-yard line, but by the time he threw the football under duress he had drifted back to the 15. In a cunning move of self-preservation, Smith released the ball off his back foot to absorb the blow of the oncoming blitzers (he was immediately driven to the turf by Lackey in a hit that drew a 15-yard roughing the passer foul). The throw was literally all arm, but Geno still had plenty of pepper on it.
With Baylor cornerback Joe Williams draped all over his target the Mountaineers trigger man perfectly placed the ball high and to the inside, allowing Woods the opportunity to separate from the defender and make a spectacular leaping catch. So precise was the throw that it left you wondering if Geno had been aiming for the palm of Woods’ extended right hand all along - a hand that hadn’t even been extended yet when Smith released the ball.
The four qualities that separate great quarterbacks from all the rest are toughness, intelligence, velocity and accuracy. Geno Smith demonstrated all four in one play.
I could watch this stuff all day.
#2 - WEST VIRGINIA ISN’T THE ONLY TEAM IN THIS GAME WITH DEFENSIVE ISSUES
Countless words have been written chronicling the Mountaineers’ defensive shortcomings against Baylor. But the Longhorns have been saddled with their own defensive woes in the first month of the season.
With seven starters returning from a unit that finished tops in the Big 12 and No. 11 in the nation, expectations were through the roof for coordinator Manny Diaz’ crew this fall. Through four games, however, the Texas defense has been all hat and no cattle. The Horns have been hit with big plays at a far more alarming rate than last season, yielding gains of 44, 48, 50, 69, 75 and 82 yards already. After finishing 2011 with the No. 6 unit in the country against the run, Texas enters this match-up surrendering a chunky 180 yards per game on the ground, ranking 86th nationally and ninth in the Big 12.
Tackling was a major issue for the Horns in last week’s win in Stillwater. A few instances in particular really jumped out.
The first example of this came on the second play of the game when Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle busted loose for a 69-yard touchdown. Texas’ all-conference free safety Kenny Vaccaro flew up in run support and had Randle squared up perfectly with a golden opportunity to make the stop at the 36-yard line, just five yards downfield. But Vaccaro bit hard on a juke step. He completely whiffed, thereby springing Randle free. As Randle climbed to the 48-yard line, Texas strong safety Adrian Phillips came flying in from his right side with what appeared to be another perfect chance for the takedown. Phillips got both hands – and arms - on the ball carrier and tried desperately to wrap him up but as he did Randle shook free with another hard cut to the right and raced down the remaining half the field to the end zone - two great chances for Texas to make the stop. Both failed, and the result was a game-breaking touchdown for the Pokes.
Instance number two arose in the second quarter. Cowboys quarterback J.W. Walsh took the snap in the shotgun and looked quickly to his right before coming back to fire a strike down the deep seam to a streaking Josh Stewart on the left. Stewart hauled the pass in at the Texas 20-yard line and was met abruptly by the aforementioned Adrian Phillips. The problem was that Phillips unwisely went for the kill shot instead of the pass break up – or even the tackle – and he ricocheted harmlessly to the turf. Meanwhile, Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom, an Associated Press first team all-Big 12 performer a year ago, took a poor angle and overran the collision entirely. Stewart bounced free, regained his balance, and easily strolled into the end zone to complete a 44-yard score. So shaky was the tackling of Adrian Phillips against OSU that he’s been battling this week with sophomores Josh Turner and Mykkele Thompson to keep his job in the starting rotation.
And finally . . .
#5 - TWEET! TWEET!
Here are a few observations I’ve tweeted this week about WVU, Texas and this weekend’s game of games:
- FIVE OF THE TOP six teams in the country in 3rd down success are in the Big 12, including No. 1 West Virginia (60.87%) and No. 4 Texas (58.33%).
- West Virginia is one of just two teams in the country (Texas A&M is the other) with only one turnover committed at this point.
- Imagine the carnage if Bruce Irvin was still in Morgantown to be unleashed on the pass happy Big 12. It would be a Von Miller redux.
- The 576 yards Texas surrendered to Oklahoma State Saturday night were the most the Horns have yielded since allowing 594, also to OSU, in 2007.
- The last team to roll up 500-plus yards vs. Texas IN AUSTIN was Oklahoma State in a 33-16 win in 2010. The Pokes O-Coordinator was of course Dana Holgorsen.
- Think about this: On third and long (10-plus) Geno's passer rating is 282.2, nearly 100 points higher than every other CFB quarterback's *EVERY DOWN* rating.
- WVU hasn't trailed often this year, but when it has Geno Smith has literally been perfect: 18-of-18 for 196 yards and three TDs.
- Geno Smith tossed eight touchdowns Saturday vs. the Baylor Bears. The New Mexico Lobos threw just seven during all of last season and Army threw only five.
- Geno has 20 TD passes through four games. Last year, Geno's 20th TD toss came in the fourth quarter of WVU's eighth game (in the snow at Rutgers).
- Perspective? Geno had 687 total yards vs. Baylor (Pass 656, Rush 31). That's 315 more than the career high of two-time Heisman finalist Major Harris.
- Have times changed? Geno Smith scorched Baylor with 656 yards last Saturday. In 1985, Mike Timko was WVU's leading passer with 567 yards - for the year.
In fact, Geno's 656 yards last Saturday are more than the season total managed by WVU Hall of Famer Fred Wyant in three of his four years as a starter.
- WVU's Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin have combined for 1,195 receiving yards. By my unofficial count, that's more than 76 teams have managed so far this year.
- The Horns do like to play keep away. Texas has possessed the ball for 35-plus minutes in three of four games and rank fifth nationally in that category.
- Defensively, West Virginia has faced 330 snaps in four games (83 per). Texas has faced 252 (63 per).
- By my count Texas has allowed six plays of 40-plus yards while West Virginia has allowed eight. Overall WVU is yielding 5.75 per play, Texas 6.19.
See you at the fifty!
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