UConn quarterback is getting his chance
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- On just about any other day this season, it might have been foolish to put Geno Smith next to Mike Box and compare West Virginia's quarterback to UConn's.
Smith was the Parade Magazine All-American and was the player of the year in the largest class of high school football in Florida. Box enjoyed an unheralded high school career as a mostly undistinguished player. Smith played enough to be prepared to be the starter. Box was a redshirt player who wasn't a contender for the starting job this season.
Things change, though, and there is no other choice now but to contrast the two when the Huskies (3-4, 0-2 Big East) play host to WVU (5-1, 1-1) at 8 p.m. Friday at Rentschler Field on ESPN2.
What once seemed foolish is now necessary to discuss. Both Smith and Box are young quarterbacks in their first season as starters, though Smith, a sophomore from Miami's Miramar High School, will make his seventh start while Box, a redshirt freshman from Suwanee, Ga., gets his second after the Huskies' starter was banished.
And both are coming off forgettable days.
"They're probably struggling at the quarterback position and our quarterback struggled Saturday," said WVU Coach Bill Stewart. It's going to be a game of who has the greatest resolve."
Smith was 20-for-37 for 178 yards in last weeks' 19-14 loss to Syracuse, but he was sacked five times and threw three interceptions. In his first 177 passes this season, Smith threw two interceptions.
"That's a 'me' problem," Smith said. "It's something where I've got to make better decisions and I've got to get the ball out of my hand quicker. Guys were getting open and I've got to be more disciplined in my reads. I wasn't hitting the check-downs like I used to. It's something I have to work on."
Box is the starter now after Cody Endres was suspended for the remainder of the season.
In his debut, Box was 4-for-12 for 35 yards and an interception in last week's 26-0 loss at Louisville. Endres has since decided he'll leave school next semester.
The new quarterback has the distinction now of starting the first shutout loss since 2005.
"I had so many emotions before the first snap," Box said. "I just kept telling myself to get through the first snap and everything would be fine. The first snap was great and after that it was just another football game for me. The game speed was fine. It wasn't anything that I haven't trained for. It was just football, and I was ready."
The 6-foot-2 Box set school records for single-game and single-season passing as a high school senior. Before Endres found trouble, Coach Randy Edsall elevated Box to backup above Zach Frazer, who was the starter at the beginning of the season. Edsall liked what he saw from Box Saturday before the game got away from the Huskies.
"He did start off well early on," Edsall said. "The first two drives he was good and then he threw that pick, he kind of panicked a little bit and just didn't set his feet. He had a chance to step up and run the ball or just set your feet and he kind of threw it off his back foot.
"But he did some good things, running the ball, but then again that's his first game and his inexperience showed up a little bit. But I think he does have tools and does have ability."
On his first drive Box led the Huskies to a 29-yard field goal attempt that missed. UConn forced a punt late in the first quarter, but the returner fumbled and Louisville needed three plays to score a touchdown. Box was intercepted on the next drive and the Cardinals moved 35 yards to kick a field goal for a 10-0 lead.
UConn would get into Louisville territory twice the rest of the game and never deeper than the 36-yard line. Both came with Frazer at quarterback after Box left when he was shaken up by a defender.
"My health's fine," Box said. "I'm coming back next week. No problem. I got a little bit of a bell ringing, and the trainers decided to keep me out. It wasn't my decision. If I had it my way, I would have been back in there five minutes after it happened. I'm good to go. The only thing that is hurt is my pride for the team, for me and how things transitioned."
Smith is similarly ready to get back into a game after his worst outing at WVU. He threw one interception on his third pass of the game, one in the end zone when he could have given his side a 21-10 lead and one at the end of the half when WVU was at midfield.
The interceptions preceded three Syracuse field goals. Two drives covered 15 and 7 yards.
"I felt great coming out," he said. "We moved the ball pretty well and got rolling. When I threw the interception on the first drive, it was tough knowing I put our defense in a tough situation making a stop on a short field, but I felt pretty good. I put the interceptions behind me and we had a chance at the end. I just didn't make enough plays."
On WVU's final possession Smith took sacks on second and fourth down and didn't spot an open receiver in the end zone on third down. Stewart, Smith and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said afterward Smith needed to get rid of the ball quicker.
"I saw a guy that had a hard outing try to fight and do the best he could," Stewart said. "If you ever played quarterback - which I did at junior-high age, and I said, 'I'm not going to be that guy.' - when you're not clicking at that position, you don't see a lot of things and the things you see may be illusions. It's tough to get back in the flow."
Smith and Box both share the trust of their respective coaches. Edsall says Box gives his team the best chance to win. WVU's faith in Smith, who is Nos. 3 and 4 in pass offense and efficiency in the Big East, never wavered during or after the loss.
Many sought to take the blame off Smith. Stewart said Syracuse should have been called for pass interference on Smith's first interception and a "veteran receiver" ran a bad route on the second. Smith's arm was clipped on the third and he threw a fluttering pass. The offensive line didn't give Smith much help against Syracuse's blitzes.
"He's our guy," said Mullen, who is also WVU's quarterbacks coach. "A lot of it is my fault, not his fault. He's a sophomore making his seventh start (against Syracuse). I wouldn't care if he's a senior making his 50th start. He's a college kid and I get paid to coach him and I've got to do a better job preparing him and getting him ready to play.
"He's got to put the thick skin on and go back to work. I saw him make a couple suspect decisions with the football and decision-making is a direct correlation to the guy talking to him all week long and that's me. I've got to do a better job talking to him in a way that keeps him from making those decisions."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.