Geno Smith has emerged as a leader for West Virginia football

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 12:08 AM

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - Geno Smith slammed down his blue and gold helmet late in the fourth quarter Friday night, then delivered a fiery pep talk to his teammates.

"He said, 'We are going to do this,' " West Virginia Coach Bill Stewart recalled of the moment when the soft-spoken sophomore quarterback became the unquestioned leader of the Mountaineers' offense. "Geno looked at everybody, and looked dead at me and he said, 'We are going to do this.' I looked at the linemen, I looked at the backs and said, 'Let's follow him.' "

Follow they did as Smith, in his first career start on the road, coolly directed fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 96 and 98 yards, and completed a two-point conversion pass, to rally West Virginia from a 21-6 deficit against Marshall, an opponent the Mountaineers were expected to thump but only squeaked past in overtime, 24-21.

"It humbled us, but at the same time it gave us a bit of extra confidence because of the circumstances we were in, how we're down and had to go 98 yards," Smith said this week. "We came together as a team."

And Smith, a precise pocket passer with a powerful arm, became the latest Mountaineers player to arrive on the national stage. The Miramar, Fla., native completed 14 of 17 pass attempts for 151 yards and a touchdown in the final 8 minutes 28 seconds to stun the Thundering Herd and its fans.

"Actually," Smith added, "I don't see what the big deal is. Not to be cocky or anything, but I have extreme faith in myself and confidence."

Smith's emergence could prove to be key Saturday for the No. 21 Mountaineers, who will make a significant step up in competition when they host Maryland in a game Stewart regards as an important early-season barometer of his team's progress. The rivals did not face each other the past two seasons, ending a stretch in which they played each fall from 1980 to 2007. West Virginia leads the all-time series 23-21-2 and has won each of the past four meetings, including a 31-14 triumph in College Park in 2007.

"This is a great border rivalry," said Stewart, who has 10 Maryland natives on his roster. Asked about the advantage the Mountaineers will possess at notoriously raucous Milan Puskar Stadium, Stewart joked: "We've really cleaned up. We're the neatest, tidiest, most courteous fans out there. Our fans will not get rambunctious, will not rock [Maryland's] bus like the old days. . . . It's a great place to play when you're from here and a tough place to play when you're not."

And now they've got another edge Maryland won't have: a game-breaker at quarterback to complement standout running back Noel Devine and pass-catching threats Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin on the Big East's second-ranked offense (434.5 yards per game).

Devine was named the conference's offensive player of the week after racking up 174 all-purpose yards against Marshall - his 17th game with at least 100 rushing yards - and scoring one of the two fourth-quarter touchdowns. But what Devine enjoyed just as much, he said, was watching Smith take control on the sideline against Marshall and then author a breakthrough performance.

"I always knew Geno was something special, but for him to put it together like that shows he's growing and maturing," Devine said. "He's getting better week by week. Now [opponents] never know what they are going to get. They may get a run, they may get a draw, may get a screen or they may get a deep pass to Jock."

Offensive lineman Joe Madsen said of Smith's impassioned pep talk: "It was awesome. It shows a lot of leadership on his part. I liked to see it. He needed to step in and get us in line."

Smith completed 32 of 45 passes for 316 yards against Marshall, one week after ripping overmatched Coastal Carolina for 216 yards on 20-of-27 passing in a 31-0 season-opening rout. He leads the Big East in passing efficiency (145.2), total passing yards (532), completions per game (26) and total offense per game (275.5).

The impressive stats, Smith said, are mostly the result of adding about 20 pounds to his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame and the experience from a second offseason of preparation. As a result, he's more sturdy on his feet. Panic no longer sets in at the first sign of pressure. And when his first option is covered, he calmly scans his second and third reads before making a decision.

In short, Smith said, the game is slowing down.

"Sometime over the summer, I started to see things in a better light," he said. "I work hard in the film room, and that hard work is showing itself out there on the field."

But what makes Smith a potential star, Stewart said, is that he also possesses something hours of film study can't teach.

"The kid's got a lot of 'it,' " the coach said. "That 'it' factor."

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