Demetrius Hartsfield has faced plenty of top-flight quarterbacks in his collegiate career. By the Maryland linebacker’s estimation, West Virginia senior Geno Smith is far and away the best.
The Terrapins will have their hands full Saturday with the Mountaineers’s offense, which is averaging more than 600 yards and 55 points through two games this season. Smith, the program’s career passing leader, is among the early Heisman Trophy hopefuls.
With pass blocking that mirrors punt protection, West Virginia doesn’t use a tight end. The Mountaineers spread the field, so one missed tackle on the outside can turn into a 40- or 50-yard gain. Deep and athletic, their fourth or fifth receivers can out-sprint linebackers dropping into coverage, and they often utilize shovel passes underneath as pseudo-running plays.
Smith ranks second in the bowl subdivision with 408.50 total yards per game, including 411 passing yards and five touchdowns last weekend in a 42-12 blowout of James Madison at FedEx Field. That effort made him West Virginia’s career leader in completions and touchdowns, surpassing Marc Bulger, who attended Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic, Terps quarterback Perry Hills’s alma mater.
“He’s got a great arm, but he knows where to go with the ball,” Coach Randy Edsall. “And some of the throws he makes, there’s some good coverage, putting the ball right where it needs to be. I think his accuracy has improved since last year.
“When you watch the film, pretty much being in it as long as I’ve been in it, you can see the level of confidence, and you can see he’s playing with a tremendous level of it. We hope we can shake it a little bit, get where his confidence is off a little early. If we can disrupt him, that will be to our advantage.”
Smith is an experienced senior, while Hills will be making just his fourth collegiate start. During the weekly Big 12 teleconference, Mountaineers Coach Dana Holgorsen commended Smith for his offseason weight gains, which have bulked him up to 220 pounds.
“Those big quarterbacks, when you come, you have to come hard and make sure you put them down,” Terps defensive lineman A.J. Francis said.
Getting to Smith early and often will be a major part of Maryland’s game plan, though the veteran quarterback rarely strings together bad sequences, especially at home. He threw two interceptions in three games last season, twice on the road and once at home against LSU.
“Everybody just wants to beat him,” Hartsfield said. “It’s not like we’re putting him out in the spotlight like he’s the guy we have to beat, but we know that if he has a great game, their chances of winning are a lot higher. He’s the starting point.”
The Terps are banking on a repeat of the second half the last time these two teams met, and not the first. On Sept. 17, 2011 at Byrd Stadium, the Mountaineers took a 27-10 halftime lead, but managed just one touchdown and a field goal in the second half, and the Terps battled back from that early deficit and wound up losing 37-31. Smith finished 36 of 49 for 388 yards and one touchdown.
“If you hit a quarterback a bunch of times, sooner or later you’re going to get into his head. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Francis said. “They don’t get hit all week in practice. If you hit him early, and make him know you’re there, he’ll start throwing the ball a little quicker, hopefully make some mistakes. That’s every quarterback.”
Smith thrives through the weapons around him, none more productive than receiver Tavon Austin, a Baltimore native who was a first-team All-American return specialist in 2011 and had 101 receptions for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns his junior season.
The last time Maryland played in Morgantown, a 31-17 West Virginia victory, Austin and Smith teamed up for two early touchdowns as the Mountaineers scored the game’s first 28 points. With that unorthodox attack, dubbed “Air Raid,” West Virginia can effectively operate its rushing game via short, shuttle passes. Stopping those, Francis said, will be top priority.
“You know they’re going to throw the ball,” he said. “They’re going to get some plays because they have so many athletes and a great quarterback. But they get a lot of yardage on quick shuttle passes that are like run plays to Tavon or others. It ends up being a rush, and they’ll get rush yardage.
“You know they’re going to pass, but if they can run the ball, you’re in trouble because their playbook is wide open.”