By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The most dependable sign of greatness comes, perhaps, when a player somehow manages to find a way to turn an unproductive game into a productive one.
And that is why you have to love Geno Smith.
Let us first make an admission. Saying someone has been unproductive is a subjective matter and also quite flexible, for certainly an unproductive day for a quarterback like Peyton Manning may be a productive day for his replacement, Curtis Painter.
To Geno Smith, passing for 218 yards, as he did against Rutgers on Saturday, would be considered an unproductive day, although unproductive should carry an asterisk, for the 218 yards were produced in a snowstorm that only an Eskimo could love.
“The conditions were horrible — this is as bad of conditions that I have ever played in or coached in for my entire career, the first half especially, because the field was covered in ice and slush,” said West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen. “We had a tough time hanging on to the ball.”
And so it was that while Smith completed 20 of 31 passes, it was as much a result of a slippery football that the receivers sometimes could not latch onto as any other factor.
But we’re really not talking about his passing or his accuracy here, not even about his two fumbles, which were weather-related. Instead, this is about his decisions and the way he was running the game, which for much of the day had Holgorsen visibly upset and frustrated.
By halftime, as now has been well chronicled through the extended state of West Virginia, the Mountaineers trailed by 10 points, 31-21, and while the deficit surely was not to be placed at Smith’s feet, there was something missing from the quarterback position at the moment.
However, there was a second-half comeback, Smith tossing a pair of touchdown passes, one of them among the most spectacular plays you will ever see in a West Virginia game. Smith put a pass in a perfect position for a leaping but covered Stedman Bailey, who reached out, tipped the ball back to himself with his left hand and caught it while staggering out of the back of the end zone.
The moment where Smith became a Mountaineer hero came at the moment he stepped out of character, a crucial play with 6:18 left and WVU trailing 31-28. It was fourth and goal at the Rutgers 1, a position where a field goal was almost a certainty and would tie the game.
But Holgorsen wanted no part of a field goal or a tie game. He was ready to go for the jugular.
“If you don’t get it, they are backed up inside their 1-yard line. You can use that to your advantage defensively,” he explained. “I felt like we had it; I felt like we had the right play called but Geno kind of blinked a little bit.”
The play was a pass to Tyler Urban over the middle, but Smith saw Urban was covered and decided to, in Holgorsen’s terms, “not trigger it,” instead pulling it down and running.
“We’ve been telling these guys a lot that it’s hard to call perfect plays on offense,” Holgorsen said. “If you don’t call a perfect play, that doesn’t mean a play can’t work. You’ve got to figure out a way to make it work.”
That was something Smith had not been doing all day.
“I was frustrated with Geno for a lot of the game today,” Holgorsen admitted, “but he did it in the fourth quarter.”
Indeed he did, pulling it down and going for the first running touchdown of his career.
Smith, in fact, scrambled for yardage three times in the second half, giving future defenses something new to worry about. Pat White, he isn’t, but he is capable of turning an unproductive play into a productive one, just as he can turn an unproductive day into a productive one.
“He got a couple of scrambling first downs, which kept us out on the field, and that’s called making a play,” Holgorsen said. “We don’t tell him to scramble and run, or scramble and throw; you’ve got to look at it and make a decision.”
The ability to think on your feet, before you get knocked off your feet, can separate the great quarterbacks from the good ones. Most of them, you see, can make the throw when everything goes as it is supposed to. It is those who find a way to improvise and turn bad plays into good plays who you find playing on Sundays.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.