By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
With tomorrow staring him squarely in the face, West Virginia University quarterback Geno Smith did not want to look back at yesterday, when all his troubles seemed so far away.
It mattered not to him that Saturday’s meeting with Kansas, one that carries as must-win a tag as did last season’s Orange Bowl for it will determine the WVU bowl placement, would be his final game in Milan Puskar Stadium.
“As far as it being our last game, it probably won’t hit me until I go out there,” said the most prolific passer in WVU history. “I probably will look around later in the game and soak it all in.”
That is the Geno Smith the West Virginia fan base has come to know and love since former Mountaineer Damon Cogdell directed him toward WVU after having coached him at Miami’s Miramar High in time for the 2009 season.
Maybe, Smith was saying, after business was taken care of, after he had WVU in a position to defeat 1-10 Kansas and punch a ticket probably to spend Christmas in San Diego at the Holiday Bowl, maybe then he would look at things as they were, not as they are.
That is the competitor in him.
“That kid just loves to compete,” said Jake Spavital, his quarterback coach. “That rubs off on people. He really gets p.o.’d when he loses. That’s the kid I want, the kid that doesn’t like to lose.”
“My competitiveness just comes from my drive to be the best at whatever I do,” Smith explained this week. “I hate to lose. I think that’s just part of being a competitor. It’s just the nature of the game.
“If you don’t expect good things to happen, then I don’t think they’ll happen for you, especially if you hate to lose. A lot of people just accept losing, and it’s hard to accept it and I never will, and I think that’s what drives my competitiveness.”
It is so much a part of his persona that it can actually hurt him off the field.
“Probably my social life,” he said. “I take a lot of what happens on the football field out on my friends and family, and they always tell me about that. Other than that, I don’t think so.”
That is why it hurt him so badly this year when a 5-0 start melted down to a five-game losing streak, when dreams of going out a Big 12 champion, if not a national champion, shriveled into nothing more than a save-the-season mode.
“You look at Geno’s stats and they are as good as anyone in college football,” coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He’s done a great job of protecting the ball; he’s done a great job of running the offense. Has it not been enough in specific games? Yes, but that’s the case with a whole lot of people across the country as well.”
Some of the losses hit Smith so hard that he took them too personally, heaping all the blame upon himself when, in truth, if his performance had fallen off, it was only that the human race had caught up with him.
“Geno and I have talked. He doesn’t need to say that,” Holgorsen said of the self-blame at the time. “He is one of many positions that plays football here. If he thinks that all of this falls on his shoulder, then he is sadly mistaken. He is one of our leaders, and he is a tremendous football player.”
The truth is that there was so much more to it all when Holgorsen adopted and reshaped Smith into the quarterback he wanted upon taking over for Bill Stewart.
Oh, Smith had come into the picture under Stewart back in 2009, a freshman playing behind Jarrett Brown.
In the season’s third game, a huge battle on the road at Auburn that the Tigers would win, 41-30, Brown had big problems, throwing four interceptions. With about 3:30 left to play, Brown injured his wrist, which forced Smith into the game where he would debut with a 5-8 night for 50 yards and an interception.
It was an inglorious debut, his first play resulting in a sack and a two-yard loss, but as he has done so often since, his next throw was a 14-yard completion down the middle to Jock Sanders.
Three games later he came off the bench again, rushed into play when Brown fumbled and was injured on a 13-yard gain in the first series against Marshall, leaving the game to Smith, his first Mountaineer Field action. The first completion against the home crowd was of 5 yards to Jock Sanders, the first touchdown a 33-yard completion to Alric Arnett in a 24-7 victory.
Smith really didn’t arrive as a folk hero in West Virginia until the season’s second game in 2010 at Marshall, WVU trailing by 15 points with 8:28 left. That’s when Marshall freshman Tron Martinez fumbled the ball away, Smith rallying the team down the field for a touchdown to move to within 8 points.
“I looked up and there were eight minutes to go and we were down 21-6 and we go 96 yards and 98 yards and score a two-point conversion,” Stewart was quoted as saying at the time. “That just shows you how we grew in the fourth quarter.”
In overtime, West Virginia averted disaster on its opening play when Smith fell on his fumble after being sacked for a 9-yard loss. He recovered with passes of 9 yards to Noel Devine and 13 yards to Tavon Austin to give West Virginia first and 10 at the 12. Eventually, the Mountaineers were stopped at the 3, where Tyler Bitancurt punched through a 20-yard field goal.
Marshall would miss a tying field goal try, and the Mountaineers escaped behind Smith, whose first career road start produced 32 completions in 45 attempts for 316 yards and the victory.
Buoyed by that performance, Smith played well in 2010, passing for 2,763 yards before Holgorsen took change and had him pass for 4,385 yards the next year.
This year, when adversity struck in the form of those five straight losses, Smith lost some of his cool and placed much of the blame on himself.
“He pressed at times,” Spavital said. “I wouldn’t say all the time, but what quarterback won’t when you are not having success? There are times he tried to do things out of his control, but that’s pretty much human nature. All quarterbacks do that.”
“He cares more than anybody. He is responsible for a lot of points and a lot of wins,” Holgorsen said during the losing streak. “For him to be at his best, he needs to understand that the only thing he can do is take the snap and go where we want him to go with the ball. If that is all he worries about, then he is going to be more productive. He needs to relax a bit and not bear that burden. We are going to get him back on track.”
Smith is ready to play this final home game and has the proper outlook, knowing that even if he prefers to ignore yesterday there is always a tomorrow.
“I know I have more games left in my career, and I will represent my university at the next level and I look forward to doing so. That eases some up the load off my shoulders,” he said. “The main thing I’m going to miss is being around the 22 seniors, the guys who stuck with me for my four years here, being around the freshmen and sophomores, who I try to mentor and teach them how fast it goes by. It seems like yesterday I came in here, and now I’m on my way out.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.