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December 28, 2010

Bowl time

WVU takes on N.C. State tonight

ORLANDO, Fla. — It is too easy to look at this evening’s Champs Sports Bowl game between West Virginia and North Carolina State as the end of an era for the Mountaineers when, perhaps, it is really the beginning of an era.

True, it is Coach Bill Stewart’s final solo run as coach, having to spend next year with Dana Holgorsen in the wings as coach-in-waiting, and it is the final game Noel Devine and Jock Sanders and J.T. Thomas and Chris Neild, among so many other seniors, will play for WVU.

It might even be, if the vibes that he’s been putting out are being interpreted correctly, Robert Sands final game as a Mountaineer safety.

“I don’t know yet,” Sands said this week. “I still haven’t decided yet if this is going to be my last practice or I’m going to have a whole other year of practice. I’m not sure yet.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen’s offense, too, will be history after the game, replaced by Holgorsen’s “Air Raid” attack, which led the nation this year in total yardage at Oklahoma State. But the carryover effect from Mullen will remain in quarterback Geno Smith, who may just be ready to create a new era of his own.

If what happened at Houston and Oklahoma State under Holgorsen can happen at WVU — and the jury remains out on that as the school has a long and proud reputation built on running the football, not throwing it — Smith will be the man who makes it happen.

No one can deny he showed promise this season, completing 65.8 percent of his passes for 2,567 yards and 23 touchdowns against only six interceptions.

If he can take to Holgorsen as he took to Mullen, the two becoming extremely close as Mullen nursed Smith into the college game for two years, there is a chance that WVU can change not only the way it plays football but, with the addition of TCU, can change the way the Big East plays football.

There is nothing to indicate that Smith and Holgorsen won’t hit it off, Smith being an eager pupil who approaches the game seriously but has the perfect demeanor to keep it from dominating him, much as Holgorsen can be laid back and is able to detach himself from the game.

“First, everyone sees the physical attributes, they don’t see the mental, but he will pick up whatever system he’s given very quickly and adapt very well,” Mullen promises.

Rest assured, this has been a long, hard season for Smith, the offenses not producing as expected in the ground game, mostly due to offensive line lapses but also an injury to running back Noel Devine’s foot and ankle.

It certainly could have worn on Smith in his first year as a starter, especially without an experienced backup to give him some rest. Yet, he says he fresh.

“I feel fine. I can play forever, but obviously, you don’t want to make football your life,” he said.

Too often in football, a game that demands intensity, players and coaches get so wrapped up in it that it actually works against them. Smith has escapes, explaining how he doesn’t let it consume his life.

“Time management,” he said. “When it’s time for football, you got to be all in. You also have to understand when you rest you have to clear your mind and not think about football.”

Smith does that through his personality, which is as consistent as the phases of the moon.

“I do it just by always being the same guy. That way you don’t have to put on a show or a front for anybody. I just am myself,” he said.

That means playing video games, his favorite being “Call of Duty” and hanging out with friends and teammates. When he can, he sets time aside for his family, as he will do after this bowl is over and the Christmas break for him begins.

But football is still there.

“My whole life I’m thinking of how I can get better, how I can play better,” he admitted.

It’s the way he sees the game, however, that keeps him from being devoured by it and why this game is no more or no less important than any other.

“I see football as my hobby. It’s my pastime. It’s not a job. It’s something I love to do,” he said.

The bowl game, in fact, comes down to two quarterbacks with spectacular talent but not absorbed by the game, N.C. State being run by Russell Wilson, a junior with huge numbers but who will probably follow baseball and not football for a career.

While Smith threw for 2,567 yards, Russell threw for 3,288 yards and in his three years in which he has started 35 of 36 games he has passed for 8,270 yards with 74 touchdowns, he has already signed a minor league baseball contract and begun that career.

He will test WVU’s No. 2-ranked defense, just as the Mountaineer offense will be tested by a strong N.C. State defense.

“They are No. 19 against the run, which makes you want to pass,” Mullen said, “and they have the fourth most sacks in the nation, which makes you want to run.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com

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