Orange Bowl: WVU quarterback could make big impact in Big 12
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- It is an end, but it also may be a beginning.
West Virginia's 119th football season closes tonight here at Sun Life Stadium with the Mountaineers' first Orange Bowl, a date with ACC champion and 14th-ranked Clemson.
It's a matchup that - like several of this postseason's games - figures to challenge the Orange Bowl record for points in a game - 79 (Florida 56, Maryland 23, in 2002).
If that's the case, expect junior quarterback Geno Smith to be a major part of that offensive productivity for 23rd-ranked WVU (9-3). If that's the case, it's the start of the Mountaineers making a case for their QB for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
It could be a huge game for Smith in his own backyard. It's the only game in town, on ESPN, and the only really significant bowl game left other than the Cotton Bowl on Friday next week's BCS National Championship in New Orleans.
Whether it's Big East or Big 12 membership next season for WVU, Smith - pitching to familiar catchers in Coach Dana Holgorsen's airy attack again on a team that returns its skill position stars - easily could lead the nation in passing in 2012.
While the Big 12 would (and will, whenever it happens) be a tougher challenge for WVU, if Smith plays big in the Texas-Oklahoma axis of pigskin, it will only help his candidacy. And WVU's throw-spread scheme is a tailored fit in the yards-happy Big 12.
Ten of the last 11 Heismans have been won by quarterbacks. Gino - hey, same name, different spelling - Torretta was the only Big East player to win as Miami's QB in 1992. Six Big 12 players have won the 25-pound trophy since then.
RG3, Andrew Luck, Brandon Weeden, Case Keenum, Kellen Moore and Russell Wilson will be done with college ball.
Smith's major QB challengers would figure to be USC's Matt Barkley and Denard Robinson of Michigan.
OK, we're getting ahead of things, but Smith's last big game on national TV was his biggest. Against a defense of an LSU team that's unbeaten and playing for a national title, the 6-foot-3 QB threw for a WVU record 463 yards back in September.
A big game against another set of Tigers with a physical defense tonight could portend something special for Smith next season ... not that he wants to discuss it.
"I'm very excited to be home," Smith said Monday, "in my home state, home city to play in such a big game, to boost this university and get our program where we want to be ... to be the first Dana Holgorsen-coached team to make it to a BCS bowl is pretty special.
"I'm not a selfish guy. Whatever is going to be set out for me as far as the next level and next year goes, I can take care of that next year."
Smith doesn't flinch easily. It's one reason why he's had six games of more than 370 passing yards for the 9-3 Mountaineers. By the way, the Orange Bowl records for pass completions and yardage are 34 and 369, both belonging to Tom Brady - yes, that All-Pro Patriot - for Michigan in 2000.
"The way he stays in the pocket, under pressure," WVU center Joe Madsen answered when asked about Smith's impressive trait. "He'll take hits like nobody else."
OK, so is that good or bad?
"It's on the fence," Madsen said, grinning. "If he's holding it for a long time, "it means you're doing your job (protecting), but if he's holding onto it and getting sacked, it's, 'Get rid of the ball so I don't look bad.'"
Smith's high school and college catching teammate, Stedman Bailey, sees is buddy as boosting perhaps more than one candidacy.
"This is a big opportunity for him, for me and our team," Bailey said. "We're not sure what's going on with the conference realignment, if we're going to go to the Big 12 or not, but winning this will be very important for us, especially if we do go into the Big 12. It will give us a lot of hype for next year.
"As far as Geno and myself, for us to do a good job in this game, it might pretty much put him on top for the Heisman race next year, and for myself, the Biletnikoff Award. That's something I want to try and accomplish, winning that."
No. 14 Clemson (10-3) knows that if it is going to win in its first Orange Bowl appearance in 30 years, Smith is the player the Tigers must fluster.
"He's very athletic," veteran Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said when asked about Smith on Monday. "He does a really, really good job, and (Steele's reference) goes back having played against this offense at Kentucky and then Oklahoma, Texas Tech, now. I mean, it's not the first time you've seen different (style) quarterbacks.
"He does a great job at what we call catch-and-throw. He's got good field vision because when you're in the gun all the time, people don't realize when you're underneath the center you've got your eyes down the field, so you take the snap and you're seeing what's there.
"You know there's middle-of-the-field coverage; your eyes are always downfield. But when you're in the gun all the time, at some point in time you've got to watch the ball into your hands. It's kind of hard to catch that ball because you kind of see it go around the clock in terms of where it's at."
Steele is impressed with Smith's versatility in the position.
"He does a great job of getting the ball caught (into his own hands) and getting his eyes on his reads and then getting the ball out very quick," the Clemson coordinator said. "And then he's very accurate with his throws ... very accurate with his throws. He has the ability to scramble.
"I've known him since he was in high school, so I know what he can do with his legs. But he really does (scramble). He's more of an NFL style, and then he scrambles to throw. He's going to look to throw it first, and as soon as I say that, then he'll scramble for 80 yards (tonight), but he does scramble to throw."
Smith rewrote school and Big East record books this season, but he said he doesn't "think that's as meaningful as being here ... to know we won enough games, we've done enough this season to make it to a BCS bowl.
"Individual records are kind of selfish, I think. I don't go out and shoot for those because I think a win is way more important than any statistics I can gain. "It's more important for my family to have my name written down, and I'm proud of it, but I'm not that type of guy. I'm more about 'team.'"
The WVU quarterback also didn't hesitate when asked what he hadn't done this season that he wanted to do.
"A lot, man," said Smith, who enters the Orange Bowl 314-of-483 passing (.650), for 3,978 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. "I left a lot of yards out there, a lot of touchdowns.
"I think a lot of that is because I've been overly coaching myself at times, and it's affected me in a way, but it's also helped me because I've learned you've got to be consistent. That's something I'm working on every day."
Smith, for his part, said he is just trying to savor the here and now, the most special game of his career to date, and not just because it's a BCS game.
"It's a great experience," Smith of his homecoming bowl. "Everyone (in his the stadium-side neighborhood) who ever wanted to see me play at West Virginia, they get their chance now. It is a great experience to be here in my backyard.
"I grew up right behind Sun Life Stadium and it is going to be fun for me and my family and my teammates. The Orange Bowl is such a prestigious game and we get a chance to represent our state and our university in this game. We get a chance to play a good team in Clemson.
"I grew up close to the stadium and it is kind of ironic. I actually used to watch games on the Jumbotron sitting outside of my house and now I am playing in the stadium.
"I never imagined it happening like this - it is kind of a storybook game for me. It is here now and I have a great opportunity. I am just trying to live in the moment."
If Smith puts up numbers tonight, "storybook" could have even more definitions for the West Virginia quarterback.
Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at email@example.com or 304-348-7949.