By Bob Hertzel
MORGANTOWN — There were questions before last season’s stunning upset of West Virginia by the upstart University of South Florida Bulls on the Mountaineers’ home field, questions of just how much an advantage having Rod Smith as the underdogs’ quarterback coach could help them.
Smith, after all, had grown up in the Rodriguez system under the man himself. He had played quarterback at Glenville State when Rodriguez was honing his fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense and had probably run it as well as even Shaun King or Woody Dantzler had in the big leagues of college football.
He was versed in the formations and, just as important, in the terminology, as up-to-date as actually having served Rodriguez as a graduate assistant when the coach came to WVU just seven years ago.
Smith was so well-versed in the Rodriguez system that he was hired away by USF coach Jim Leavitt to help install the system for the Bulls.
Rodriguez pooh-poohed such talk. His signals from the sideline had changed and become so well disguised that he felt neither the CIA nor Bill Belichick could steal them.
Ah, but after the game, when WVU had trouble doing anything offensively against South Florida, the talk turned to whispers in the halls of the Puskar Center, whispers of some kind of sinister doings on the part of South Florida.
Mostly, it was in-house stuff, not for public consumption
But it did not go unnoticed that Rodriguez hired Smith away from USF before the two teams could meet again.
Considering that the WVU quarterbacks seemed to be in pretty capable hands — Rodriguez’s own — one might draw his own conclusions as to why Smith was lured away from the enemy camp.
At no time, though, would Rodriguez ever admit that it might have had something to do with what transpired on the field last year.
Ah, but on Monday night, it finally leaked out.
Reed Williams, the starting linebacker, made something of an off-hand comment when talking about last year’s game.
“It seemed like they had our plays before we’d run them,” Williams said.
Had the plays?
Other players, those from the offense, were asked if they had the same feeling, if such matters were discussed on the sideline during the game.
“I can’t comment on that too much,” said Ryan Stanchek, the offensive lineman who this year has even more to worry about as he deals head-to-head with George Selvie, USF’s dynamic defensive lineman. “Obviously, they had a good game plan. They have a very tough defense and they fly to the football.”
That could not be let drop right there.
Did you have the feeling during the game, though, that they knew what was coming?
“A little bit, yeah, a little bit,” he answered, laughing. “I don’t want to, you know …”
Yeah, we know.
Greg Isdaner was a freshman offensive lineman last year, experiencing something like this for the first time. Had he noticed any fishy going on?
“Well, they run the same offense in a lot of ways, so they see it every day,” he said. “I definitely think that factors into it. Also, during the course of a game you pick up things – tendencies, that kind of deal.”
But did you guys discuss it on the sideline at all, Isdaner was asked?
The answer was neither yes nor no.
“A lot of teams try to echo calls,” he said.
Echo calls? Like they are telling the entire defense what’s coming? And how good was South Florida at echoing calls.
“They did it better than anyone else did, but that wasn’t the only game it happened.”
And just what role had Smith played in all this?
“When I first got here last winter, that’s what I heard: That’s the reason why South Florida beat West Virginia, because I gave away the game plan,” Smith said.
“That’s like someone saying, ‘Can you give out South Florida’s secrets?’ I don’t think there are secrets. They know me. I know them a little bit. It is what it is.”
But what is it?
Is it yes? Is it no?
Would Smith do that to Rodriguez? Would he do it to Leavitt? How much of a coach who has changed jobs stays with him from the place he left when he is employed elsewhere.
“There’s a side of you,” he admitted. “But that feeling is all down the drain come game time. Friday is a different day. I’ll cheer for South Florida after Friday.”
Meanwhile, rest assured, that both teams have changed their signals, parts of their vocabulary and their personality for this one week.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.