By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia University played its first football game in 1891.
That’s even before sports writing legend Mickey Furfari was covering the team.
It has played 1,307 games since then, so setting a record at the school should be considered a rather newsworthy achievement.
This, of course, makes this year’s assault on the record books by West Virginia’s passing offense all that more impressive. Considering that Marc Bulger and Jeff Hostetler, two men who went on to rather impressive NFL careers, to say nothing of a couple of fellows named Major Harris and Patrick White quarterbacked the Mountaineers, there were marks for quarterback Geno Smith to gun at.
And he was right on target breaking those records, too many to count, and pushing them so high that you suspect they might be around a while.
On this day, though, we are here to worship at another altar, the altar of Stedman Bailey.
This Saturday “passed,” Bailey had a day that almost defies description, for not only did he break the record for most pass receiving yardage in a single game, he smashed it to smithereens, wherever that may be.
The former mark had been set by Chris Henry, himself an NFL wide receiver, against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on the 40th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Henry caught passes for 209 yards that day, including strikes of 24 and 67 yards from Rasheed Marshall in the fourth quarter to help make up for a leg injury that had slowed running back Quincy Wilson.
It certainly was an impressive record, considering he used just six pass receptions to set it.
Then along came Bailey, who was on the receiving end of 13 passes from Geno Smith for 303 yards and five touchdowns. Think about it for a minute. He broke Henry’s record by nearly 100 yards, and did so on a day when Tavon Alston also would break Henry’s mark and J.D. Woods would go beyond 100 yards in receptions.
What goes into such an afternoon of delight? How does anyone break a record so handily, by so much?
There is a story here, and it begins a week earlier against Maryland, a week when the WVU offense struggled and when Bailey actually was pointed out as one of the reasons, suffering through an afternoon that did not live up to the standards he had set for himself.
“I had a chip on my shoulder for last week. I put a couple of balls on the ground and I didn’t get my 100 yards that I try to get every week. I tried to have a big game in my first Big 12 game,” he admitted.
That he was looking to make up for the previous game was something that you could sense in the way he played, but far more subtle was the coaching move made during the week that put Bailey in position to perform at such a level.
During film study of Baylor, the coaching staff noticed a weakness that could be explored by moving Bailey into the slot in the five-receiver formation.
“They had a pretty big tendency against empty, and we felt putting him in the slot gave us a matchup we really liked,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.
It wasn’t a major change, the kind of thing that affected a lot of people. Just Bailey and the defender who had to cover him one-on-one out of the slot.
Coming into the game, Smith knew Bailey would be a hot target.
“It worked out well for us,” he said. “It kind of screwed up their communication on defense. I could tell they were trying to bracket him, but when you put him in the slot and go five wide it forces them to put him in a matchup not to their advantage.”
That’s one way to put it. Another way would be to say the defender was going into a gun fight with only a knife.
Bailey didn’t even feel he needed to have praise heaped upon him, deflecting it instead toward Smith.
“Hats off to Geno,” Bailey said, speaking of his former high school teammate at Miramar High in Miami. “He stood in the pocket all day long. He made a lot of great decisions and read the field really well.”
The most underrated aspect of Smith’s skills at quarterback is his ability to read the defenses and find receivers, although it must be admitted that on some plays in the Baylor game he had multiple receivers open.
But few were as open as Bailey was on a 20-yard scoring pass into the end zone, a play on which he said he actually had given up and slowed down, thinking Smith was throwing the ball elsewhere. But that wasn’t the case.
“I went through my reads and he was the first read, but I had so much time I was able to get back to him and he was open so I delivered him the ball,” Smith explained.
There was also a perfectly thrown fade from the 2, another perfectly thrown pass that hit him in stride from 47 yards out, a 39-yard pass and then an 87-yard pass in which Bailey did some fancy footwork.
“He just caught that wheel route and flew down the sideline,” Smith said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.