By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This past week Felix Baumgartner jumped off a ledge on a hot air balloon from an altitude of 128,100 feet above Earth and went into a free fall that hit speeds of Mach 1.4 before he landed on his feet in New Mexico.
West Virginia knows how he felt, finding themselves caught off a free fall of nearly that magnitude with consecutive losses to Texas Tech and No. 4 Kansas State by a combined score of 104-28, dropping them from No. 5 in the country to No. 23 and 25, actually surprising most observers that they remained ranked at all.
You might say, because of that, they landed on their feet, too.
Playing the role of Baumgartner is Geno Smith, who until those two defeats was the leading candidate to spend a December evening in New York City picking up some hardware named after John Heisman.
After the season’s fifth game, Smith was completing 81.4 percent of his 204 passes, 24 of them for touchdowns without an interception. In the two games since he has completed but 58 percent of his passes for 421 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
In the latest loss to Kansas State, Smith’s long completion was for just 13 yards, even with the likes of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey as receivers.
It is baffling, even as head coach Dana Holgorsen maintains that he has not forgotten how to coach offense, that this cropped up on someone as talented and dedicated as Smith, a player who went through five games without so much as a smear on his record.
Smith is equally perplexed but he is handling it as he has handled everything since he walked onto the Evansdale campus as a freshman out of Miramar High in Florida — with class, sharing the success he achieved with teammates and taking the blame for the problems that currently are plaguing the Mountaineers.
“This is one of those things where we have reached our low. This is as low as it gets,” he said. “I have never dealt with an adversity of this magnitude. I have never lost two games in this manner. I have to do a better job of being a leader, stepping up and getting guys to respond.
“I am going to do that. I am going to dig deep. I have to look at myself in the mirror and just figure out ways to get better.”
The post-game soliloquy was “I ... I ... I” whereas when things were going well it was “We ... We ... We.”
Smith had gotten credit when things were going right and he would accept the blame when things turned sour.
“Two interceptions and putting the ball on the ground — that’s three things that cost the team,” he said. “I can only point the finger at myself because of that. I can control that.
“I have to do a better job of putting the ball in a place that is catchable. Kansas State did a good job of rallying to the ball. They played extremely hard, but that is not an excuse.”
The words rang true as Smith spoke them and somehow, at a time when he was talking about having reached an all-time low, he was standing quite high by accepting responsibility and vowing to find a way to lead his team back to the heights it had reached earlier in the season.
True, the pressure had to be building on Smith, knowing that every time he took the field he had to find a way to manufacture at least five touchdowns. In fact, five touchdowns would have been enough to win only three games this season, one of them by a single point.
That plus the fact that this off-week might just arrive at a great moment, for with as many passes as Smith has thrown it is not inconceivable that he might be playing with a tired arm that could use some time off to recover.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.