The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 26, 2010

Center stage

Quarterbacks Smith, Sunseri set for Brawl

PITTSBURGH — The likelihood exists, considering the two defenses that will take the field in today’s 103rd renewal of the Backyard Brawl, that homestanding Pittsburgh and underdog West Virginia could play from noon far into the twilight before either team finds a way to score.

But there is one other likelihood, one far less discussed but that lingers over this entire black and blue affair, and that is this game will turn into “The Geno and Tino Show.”

Geno, of course, is Geno Smith, the Mountaineers sophomore quarterback, and Tino is Tino Sunseri, his mirror image with Pitt.

“They both manage the ball, the clock and the chains well,” said WVU head coach Bill Stewart. “They both have live arms, are good, balanced throwers and make good decision. They both can run the football when they need to and can evade trouble and the sack.

“Neither is Patrick White nor can they run the option like we’ve seen in the Big East in years past. I think they both have tremendous leadership skills and the thing is they are both just sophomores.”

These two have spent this entire season developing their skills and each well could stand at a moment of greatness, a time when they take over their respective teams and put all that they have learned together into magical performances on a national stage in a high-magnitude game with the conference lead at stake.

It is startling how similar the two are. Sunseri, playing in a more pass oriented offense, has performed slightly better if you are to use the QB efficiency rating, 146.1 to 138.6, but Smith has 19 touchdowns thrown to Sunseri’s 14 while both have given up six interceptions.

You might say as passers it is a tossup. And both are similar in their running abilities.

“I’ve seen Geno play,” Sunseri admitted. “I watched him down at LSU and a lot of times when he was on TV. He’s definitely a good football player and you can see him grow a lot this season. Like me, he’s had his ups and downs, that’s expected when you are a first-year guy. We are similar.

“He’s a guy who stands back in the pocket, makes decisions, tries to get the ball out to perimeter and let them make plays.”

“I really haven’t seen much of him,” Geno Smith said, Pitt not having had the national TV exposure that WVU has had. “I watch the defense. I don’t know what the offense does.”

That, of course, led one to wonder if Smith might be thinking about going head-to-head with him, even though the only time they will be on the field at the same time will be at the game’s conclusion when the winner will shake hands with the loser.

“No, and I’m pretty sure he’s not thinking about me. He’s thinking about the West Virginia defense, just like I’m thinking about the Pitt defense,” Smith said.

Geno Smith came to WVU to run the offense out of Florida and as such didn’t quite understand the intensity of the Backyard Brawl until last year, even though he played for former WVU linebacker Damon Cogdell in high school.

“It’s an honor to be a part of this great rivalry. It’s always been just another game to me, but obviously it’s meant a lot to the people of the state. I was here last year so I had a chance to experience it and see how big the game actually is,” Smith said.

Sunseri, on the other hand, played high school ball “five minutes from the school” and being the son of a pair of star Pittsburgh athletes — Sal, an All-American linebacker and former coach at the school who now coaches for Nick Saban at Alabama, and Roxann, an All-Big East gymnast — he knew all about the rivalry.

Even with that background, there was doubt where Sunseri would go to school back when he was being recruited in 2007, the year the power was passed from WVU to Pitt in the most stunning Backyard Brawl upset in history.

“I was on my official visit to Louisville,” Sunseri recalled. “I was committed there at the time. The guys wanted to turn on the West Virginia game because it was a Big East opponent. They wanted to see if West Virginia was going to a national championship game.”

That was when he decided to become a Panther.

“That game opened my eyes. I felt if they could win this game, I could see the kind of athletes Coach Wannstedt was bringing in. It looked like a program on the rise,” he said.

Both came in not knowing how they’d fit into the college game, but eager to learn and willing to work.

“I didn’t know what to expect coming in. I knew I had the ability to be successful and I knew I would work hard, but then the game comes and you have to go out and play,” Smith said. “I just try my best to limit my mistakes on Saturday.”

“You start from scratch,” is the way Sunseri put it. “It doesn’t matter how many practice reps you got. Nothing can simulate being in the game and being out there with those guys in the huddle and trying to get the team down the field to score some points.”

As with all young quarterbacks, the two have had great moments and moments they would like to have back.

“It’s definitely been a roller coaster ride,” Sunseri said. “It’s had its ups and downs and learning curve. Every time you go out there, you take something [constructive] away from it. What we wanted to do each week was grow and understand what we did right and wrong. We wanted to build on what we did right and correct what we did wrong and put the team in the best situation to win.”

Every game, every snap is a learning experience.

“A lot goes on but the more you play the better you are able to go through it, especially time management,” Smith explained. “The first couple of games I had to call a couple of time outs because I couldn’t make my reads fast enough, but as the game slowed down for me I was able to make a lot of checks because I was making my reads faster and I could get in and out of different plays. That comes with experience.”

And it all comes down to this game on the day after Thanksgiving.

It’s a time when each team will be at an emotional high, something neither quarterback can allow himself to do.

“Whenever you play quarterback you have to treat each game the same,” Sunseri said. “This is a great rivalry and had some great moments on both sides. As the quarterback, you are the settle point in the huddle. He has to get everyone to understand they need to take care of the task at hand, not let them get their emotions too high or too low. You have to make sure they know the next play can be the big play.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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