By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is a mid-summer’s night dream, to put it as Bill Shakespeare, the one-time Notre Dame quarterback, would have put it, to say nothing of the poet and playwright of the same name, this belief that West Virginia University can win the national championship this season.
It is built, of course, on the memories of a 70-33 dismantling of Clemson in January’s Orange Bowl, a hypnotic triumph that completely changed the image of the entire season and, for that matter, of the West Virginia football program.
It showed what could be with this group of players, for nine of the starters return when camp opens in just three weeks, and what could be with this offense, in which those nine starters now have a complete year of experience.
But the performance by quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey was not exactly the typical performance, for this came at the end of a somewhat inexplicable three-loss season.
One of the losses, that to LSU, would be expected, the Tigers being a team that went to the national championship game. It was hardly a smear on their record considering it was a game in which the Mountaineer offense played both proudly and spectacularly.
However, there were also inexplicable losses to Louisville and Syracuse and some rather narrow victories over Pitt, Cincinnati and South Florida down the stretch.
It seems that the awesome nature of the Orange Bowl left everyone remembering only the perfection of the final moments of the season and not the flaws that should present at least a dusting of doubt over the coming season, magnified by the move into the unknown of the Big 12.
How, one wondered out loud the other day to quarterback Geno Smith, could the same team that scored 70 points against Clemson lose by three points to Louisville and 26 to Syracuse and win its final three regular-season games by just a combined seven points while scoring only 75 points in those three games combined?
“It’s a game and that’s why we play the game,” he answered. “It’s an old cliché, but everyone has a chance, no matter if you are defeated or undefeated.”
Each game takes on a life of its own, Smith said, going even further by saying he believes “each play has a life of its own.”
And, Smith says, you have to learn from one play to another, from one game to another.
“I can say it was a learning experience. (Losing to) Syracuse helped us get by in the South Florida game and the Cincinnati game. Syracuse, Louisville, LSU were the games we lost and they were tough. Even the games we won were tough and they all shaped us, molded us and got us ready for the Clemson game.”
This has narrowed Smith’s approach in leading the Mountaineers into this season, not thinking about championships or even about the next game.
“I have to focus every day on practice. I can’t focus on what I’m going to do in the game because I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do in the
game. I’m just out there doing what I’m supposed to do, going through my reads and being a quarterback,” he said. “Every rep I take in practice, every mental rep, every time I go to watch film ... every time I go to school and go to class, all of that is important to being a good quarterback.”
He and his coach, Dana Holgorsen, are zeroing in not on winning games but on making plays, for it is the team that makes the plays that wins the games.
“The biggest thing is we have Coach Holgorsen,” Smith said. “He’s the type of guy I am. He’s a perfectionist and I’m a perfectionist. I’m my own biggest critic. Nothing I do is ever good enough in my eyes, so whether we go into the Big 12 and put up big numbers or are mediocre, my biggest thing will be from day to day to make sure I am working as hard as I can to be the best possible person and player I can be.”
Smith feels ready to do that at the highest level as he enters his final season.
“I feel a lot more mature. I feel stronger. I put on weight and have gotten bigger. That adds a little confidence to my game, but overall it’s still the same game and I’m going to play it the way I always have,” he promised.
That figures to be good enough.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.