MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Walk through the lobby of the West Virginia football building and look to the right. There’s Geno Smith, wide smile, seven-touchdown night, Orange Bowl MVP, on stage with a trophy of oranges. The caption: 70-33.
Next to it … well, that’s another framed Orange Bowl photo, 70-33. And next to that, there’s another one from the Orange Bowl. And another. And another. And there’s more on the wall over there. And on that wall, too: 70-33, 70-33, 70-33. Poor Clemson.
“It was one of those nights,” quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital says. “We even called some bad offensive plays, and they worked.”
It was the kind of night fitting for a finale, a last hurrah for the star quarterback before he goes to the NFL. Orange Bowl MVP, in his hometown, in front of family and friends, throwing to former high school teammates -- “like a storybook,” Smith says.
Except it wasn’t an ending.
“There’s been a lot of growing pains, and it’s always Year 2 of this offense turns out to be your best year,” Spavital said. “You get put in a lot of situations that are tough to coach, and it’s good just to get on tape, and now he’s seen just about every scenario.”
All those growing pains, and Year 1 for Smith under coach Dana Holgorsen resulted in only 31 touchdowns, 4,385 yards, a conference championship and 70 points in the Orange Bowl. Pre-Holgorsen? Twenty-four touchdowns, 2,763 yards and seven points in a Champs Sports Bowl loss.
Please welcome the new West Virginia, where Smith, now a senior, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey headline the most explosive passing offense in college football, where a 10-point deficit can turn into a two-touchdown lead in minutes. The revolution spreads; a top-five rushing team last decade becomes a top-five passing team this decade.
Five-thousand yards are within reach. The newcomers will push for a Big 12 championship, and Geno Smith’s ready to win the Mountaineers their first Heisman Trophy.
* * *
He came to Morgantown in 2009, and two years later Holgorsen showed up on his doorstep. Naturally, the doubts crept in from the outside. Smith was the Big East’s most efficient passer in 2010, but Holgorsen’s spin on the Air Raid would be a whole different ball game. Labeled by some as a dual threat (read: runs better than he throws), Smith had to prove that he could quickly process information, get the ball out and accurately complete passes in a new offense.
Well, he did just that. Smith, who has put on 15-20 pounds this offseason according to Spavital, stands tall in the pocket, steps up as defenders pressure him and completed 65.8 percent of his passes. And the relationship between quarterback and receivers is as deep as any in college football: Bailey and Ivan McCartney played with him at Miramar High School in Miami. Explosive inside receiver Austin caught 100 balls last year; clearly they’re on the same page, too.
“I don’t even know why I’m a dual threat,” Smith said. “It’s not that I can’t run, but I understand the game of football and understand the quarterback position, and to have a really good, successful team, the quarterback doesn’t need to run the ball. He has to be able to put the ball in the hands of playmakers, whether it’s checking off to a good run, or being able to check into a better pass, or make a good throw. That’s what I base my game on. I feel like I’m one of the best athletes on this team, but I’ll never show it on the field.”
The Texas Tech parallels are obvious, given the Holgorsen-Mike Leach connection. But there is an even more recent blueprint for West Virginia in 2012. New coordinator Joe DeForest comes from Holgorsen’s old stomping grounds at Oklahoma State, a team that ranked 107th in total defense but finished with one loss, thanks to a brilliant offense and the nation’s best turnover margin. Obviously, that’s not likely to happen again, but this isn’t the Big East anymore; this is the Big 12, which lately has revolved around big plays and the passing game.
“We give them a lot of freedom, and that’s one of the things I’ve learned from Dana,” Spavital said. “You just have to get those quarterbacks playing loose, and they can’t be afraid to make mistakes, and they’ve got to go out there with the mentality that they’re just going to sling it all over the field and just have that gunslinger mentality and not try to go out there and play like they’re walking on eggshells.”
This style of play also clouds reality. Numbers lie. How many insanely productive quarterbacks did Holgorsen help Mike Leach churn out at Texas Tech? Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons, Sonny Combie, Cody Hodges. There’s Graham Harrell, the most successful NFL player of the bunch, who only just moved from the No. 3 to No. 2 quarterback job in Green Bay. And even if Smith throws for 450 yards, everyone points to the system, the big plays on short passes to talented receivers like Austin, the track-meet games in which both teams go up and down the field like crazy. Case Keenum, whom Holgorsen and Spavital coached at Houston, set the NCAA record for career passing yards. He went undrafted last April.
Then again, a year after Holgorsen worked with him, Brandon Weeden led Oklahoma State to its best season ever and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round. As the system creeps to more prestigious programs, the raw talent of quarterbacks thrust into the system rises. Holgorsen and staff lucked into a perfect fit.
“We’re pretty fortunate,” Spavital said. “The thing that makes [Smith] very good is the way he manages a game. You can’t get him out of the film room. He comes in and he studies nonstop, and he can pretty much go out there on the field and know exactly what the defense is doing. He knows the right checks and the right plays that he can get the offense in to most likely succeed.”
Spavital says the Mountaineers are much more open to running than Leach was at Texas Tech, but we all know what’s coming. Just to see if everyone’s paying attention at a press conference, Holgorsen deadpans that the offense will feature more power football, before smiling and saying, “If you guys want to run with that one, go ahead.” Make no mistake: West Virginia will put Smith in the pistol formation, flanked by Austin and Bailey and McCartney, and the offense that has gone from 90th to sixth in passing since 2009 will throw all over the place and score at will.
Coaches don’t like to give anything away. A half hour of practice open to the media on an August evening consisted mostly of the usual drudgery: stretching, special teams and freshmen acting as tackling dummies. But Holgorsen, who’s never one to be subtle, also wasn’t about to go 30 minutes without sneaking in a brief show for the assembled cameras and notebooks.
He puts the ball down near one-goal line. The starting units line up. Smith takes charge, a couple runs get mixed in, and in about eight plays he effortlessly leads the offense the length of the field, finishing with a touchdown pass. Practice goes back to normal. Holgorsen saunters by reporters, laughs and asks if everyone’s happy with the access.
The next morning, freshmen shuffle to their first interview session as Mountaineers. They’re briefed on how to talk about helping the team and say nothing interesting about themselves. Minutes later, a few feet away, the senior Smith holds court, following these general guidelines as he stands next to a giant poster of himself celebrating a 70-point game, an unmatched night in personal achievement in which he threw for 407 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns.
That was last year. The Orange Bowl’s in Smith’s hometown, but this year the BCS National Championship game is there too. And all those 70-33’s hanging in the lobby? They’d pale in comparison to a 25-pound, bronze Heisman Trophy.
Year 1 got its storybook ending. But the best is usually saved for the encore.