By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The surprise was not that the West Virginia University coaching staff did not pick quarterback Geno Smith as the offensive champion of the Baylor game, for they have evolved that honor into the offensive champion not named Geno Smith award.
Smith, you see, is a given, especially in a week when he set every single game record for a WVU quarterback short of most tacos consumed at halftime, for higher awards than this one. They are national awards, the kind ESPN, CNN, Fox and The New York Times make note of.
But it was somewhat surprising that it didn’t go to Stedman Bailey, who had caught five touchdown passes while breaking the school record for receiving yardage by almost the length of a football field, or to J.D. Woods, who saved the day with a spectacular one-handed catch.
It went, instead, to the center, Joey Madsen.
Coach Dana Holgorsen had hinted this was coming in the aftermath of the Baylor game, noting that Madsen had played the best game of his career, but still, how do you measure how good a game a center has played?
You can’t do it the way you do with a quarterback, for instance, even though Madsen, like Smith, passes the ball on every play and has to do so between his legs while looking at the world upside down, perhaps making it even more difficult than Smith’s tosses to wide-open receivers.
“I haven’t had any incompletions,” Madsen noted in a week when Smith had only six on 51 attempts. “But I haven’t had any touchdowns either. I can’t get that.”
He did trail Smith by eight in that area.
When Holgorsen took time out from preparing his team for Saturday’s 7 p.m. showdown in the shadow of the Alamo against a Texas team with a 4-0 record and ranked ninth to the Mountaineers’ seventh to meet with the media, he explained the decision to give Madsen the award, which might be the most coveted T-shirt in the state of West Virginia.
“I took some criticism from some people for naming him the offensive champion, but those plays never get started if you don’t have a center that does everything right and makes all the right calls and blocks people,” Holgorsen said. “You could probably delete a few of those touchdowns or a few of those rushing yards if the center’s not doing his job.”
Smith and Madsen have worked together full time for a couple of years now and have become almost as one.
“He’s extremely important,” Smith said when asked about Madsen. “The center is the only guy who gets his hands on the ball every play, but he has more to do than just snap the ball. He calls the protections and he has to block and he does a great job of it.”
See, playing center is not a snap.
“The biggest thing is you have to be smart,” offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh explained. “You really have to be smart to play any offensive line position, but you really have to be smart and study to play center.”
The intelligence part comes in as the communicator on the offensive line, the man calling the protections.
“That’s all about being smart and studying film. You have to get our protection right and seeing blitzes and where they are coming from so you can slide there,” Bedenbaugh said.
Once you make the call, then the center can turn to the physical aspect of the game, the snap and the blocking.
“You have to have a quick first step and you have to have quick hands because you have someone closer to you than anyone else,” Bedenbaugh said, referring to the nose guard. “The guards and tackles are removed from the ball so they have time to step and get their feet in the ground and get set. The center has someone right on him, so he has to have that quick first step.”
But there is even something more than this ... an attitude and a spirit as the leader of the line.
Madsen brings a full house to the table in that department.
“Aside from the fact that he does a tremendous job of blocking and picking up blitzes, he’s the calmest guy,” Smith said. “He keeps us level-headed. He’s always making jokes. He’s keeps us loose. Other guys tend to get uptight but I don’t see that with him or the offensive line because he keeps them loose.”
It was like that when naming Madsen for the award brought out some false anger in guard and playmate Jeff Braun.
“Braun was so mad that he just looked at me, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that just happened,’” Madsen recalled.
Braun is a quiet, introverted guy whom Madsen often is pushing to relax.
Sometimes, though, Braun just can’t do that, leading Madsen to take another route.
“Then I tickle him,” he said.
Why not? He’s been tickling the coaches with his play since he arrived at WVU.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.