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December 28, 2012

Bowl last stop before Smith hits NFL

MORGANTOWN — The curtain goes down Saturday on one of the greatest quarterback careers in West Virginia history when Geno Smith plays his final game for the Mountaineers against Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl.

That, however, may be the wrong way to view the event, for it is being played out also as the prelude to what may be the best quarterback in this year’s NFL Draft.

WVU, of course, has turned out a great string of quarterbacks who went on and made their mark in the National Football League and one who didn’t in Major Harris.

Considering that he played for a national title, one cannot hold against him that he wasn’t the head of his team as an NFL player.

But there were others who established themselves in the league, such as Jeff Hostetler, who won a Super Bowl; Marc Bulger, who started for a dozen years; and Pat White, another QB who was ahead of himself and didn’t offer the NFL what it was looking for.

Smith, however, seems to possess all the assets necessary to become a big-time NFL quarterback, complete with a strong, accurate arm, excellent timing, an ability to perform at key moments and the experience of a lifetime throwing to NFL quality receivers like Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.

“This experience meant a lot for me, to me,” he said the other day as the team prepared for the Pinstripe Bowl. “To be here at West Virginia and to endure four years as a student-athlete is not an easy thing to do.”

It was, for the most part, an intriguing group of players put together on the West Virginia offense.

“We’ve also excelled off the field and on the field, which is extremely hard to do,” Smith continued.

That was important during this senior season because of the fallout in mid-year, five losses in a row coming out of nowhere to ruin what some thought could be a championship season despite severe defensive problems.

“I appreciate the fan base sticking with us and staying behind me through tough times,” Smith said. “There were a lot of changes around here we all had to go through. We never hung our heads, felt sorry for each other and we never turned on one another. We’ve been through this together.”

They came in to play for Bill Stewart and coordinator Jeff Mullen but that was taken down following their sophomore season when Dana Holgorsen was brought in to raise the offensive level.

He did that, culminating with an Orange Bowl for the ages that saw WVU score 70 points in a 70-33 victory over a good Clemson team, records falling on nearly every play.

And that wasn’t even enough.

“We tried to make it more than a once-in-a-lifetime thing but it didn’t work out. We wanted to go back this year, but now that the dust has settled we understand we’re in the Pinstripe Bowl and it will be a neat experience,” Smith said.

That game, Smith admits, changed his life.

“I say it did,” he said. “The Orange Bowl gave me the MVP. It was a big buildup for this year, which is what you want. It was good recognition for this year. I’m in the history books in the Orange Bowl in that stadium,” Smith said.

It was a game that Smith almost duplicated in the regular season, facing Baylor in the first Big 12 conference game, WVU scoring 70 points and Smith passing for 656 yards.

It wasn’t only the gravy train for Smith because after losing to Connecticut as a sophomore Smith went home to spend some time with his mother while getting his head straight.

“I think that was the lowest point in my college career,” he said.

This year after his fast start Smith was being hyped as the Heisman Trophy winner.

“I never believed in the hype,” he said. “There’s something Jake (Spavital) tells me: You’re never as good as you think you are or as bad as you think you are. They know around here I’m going to be the same person no matter how many accolades I get. I’m not doing it by myself. There are 11 guys on each side of the ball,” he said.

This game has taken on a lot of meaning to Smith because Syracuse has beaten him each of the last two years, and to lose to a Big East team this time around would be a crushing blow.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@homtail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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