WVU quarterback wants to improve red-zone passing game
MORGANTOWN - The entire West Virginia sideline was united by one thought at the end of Saturday's game. Everyone wanted the defense to somehow stop Maryland's offense before it could score a touchdown and steal a win that had seemed impossible not too much earlier.
And then there was Geno Smith, who knew the Mountaineers should have had a larger lead than 37-31. When safety Eain Smith stepped in front of a pass inside his own 20-yard line with 1:13 to go, the quarterback made a vow going forward.
"I want to go back to work and I'm eager to get out there and just get better," he said. "Expect a different Geno Smith coming next week."
Those are not the words of a player who completed 36 of 49 passes for 388 yards - a career-high for a second straight week - and helped three receivers gain 100 yards or more for what WVU believes is the first time in school history.
Smith instead looked and sounded like a leader who knew he had again left points on the board.
Tyler Bitancurt kicked a 21-yard field goal with 4:42 to go to give WVU its final score and the margin that forced Maryland to drive for a touchdown late, but it was the third time this season Smith had the offense inside the 10-yard line and tried and failed to throw a touchdown pass.
The Mountaineers had a third-and-goal late at Byrd Stadium and a chance to put an end to Maryland's comeback from a 34-10 deficit, but Smith misfired on a fade pattern to Stedman Bailey. The incomplete pass gave the fifth-largest crowd in stadium history (53,627) hope.
"We knew we'd get single coverage and we told him to look," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Stedman had an unbelievable release, but the throw was terrible. It's a part of Geno's game that has to get better."
In five possessions inside the 10 this season, Smith is 3-for-10 with two touchdowns. He has thrown two touchdowns, but he's also let Bitancurt come onto the field for three field goals.
Smith was perfect to start the late field-goal drive and moved the ball from his 31 to Maryland's 3, but he missed Tyler Urban in the end zone and then missed the fade and tempted Holgorsen to call the throw "awful."
"It's not hard," Smith said. "I made it look hard."
That was all the joking Smith was willing to do on the topic, one he took seriously after seeing the Terrapins get to the WVU 35.
"Getting three points was big, but I knew if I had thrown a better pass we would have had seven points that drive," he said. "But we still executed and did our jobs and got points on the board and left it up to our defense. Fortunately they held their own and won the game."
Smith has tried the fade three times this season with no success, which is a concern because Holgorsen likes to call it to take advantage of matchups. WVU plays No. 2 LSU at 8 p.m. Saturday on ABC and must make the most of any opportunity against a formidable secondary.
"It's a play where he has to trust the guy out there," Bailey said. "We've worked on it a lot in practice. He just has to have faith in me to get the job done and make sure he throws it to the spot and I'll make sure I do my part to connect."
Bailey got off the line of scrimmage fast and worked outside of the defender so there was nothing between Bailey and the back corner of the end zone. Ideally, Smith's pass would have arched toward the pylon, but Smith's throw was short and Bailed had to work back and reach around cornerback Cameron Chism. The ball hit Bailey in the hands, but he couldn't find the ball to secure it.
"I've got to trust my guys," Smith said. "A lot of times I catch myself trying to make a perfect pass instead of putting it out there for those guys and letting them go out there and do their jobs. I've got to take the pressure off myself and doing what I'm coached and trusting my receivers."
Smith has no trouble with that on any other part of the field and he made a series of throws to prove trust exists between Smith and his receivers. He fitted one pass inside of two defenders to where Ivan McCartney was supposed to run a route in the first quarter and in the third arched a ball down the left sideline so McCartney could run under it for a 36-yard gain. A 34-yard touchdown to Bailey in the third quarter went to a spot and on the decisive drive Smith made two throws on third down that were based on knowing the receivers.
The first was to Bailey on a third-and-4 that went for a 21-yard gain. The throw to the left was outside of Bailey toward the sideline, but it allowed Bailey to turn and run past Chism.
"He threw it and led me outside, which let me catch the ball and turn upfield," Bailey said. "He made a great throw to the outside and I could turn get my eyes on the defender quick and make him miss."
Three plays later the Mountaineers faced a third-and-8 and Smith quickly fired to the right to Ryan Nehlen, who had barely even played this season and never caught a pass in his career. Nehlen caught a 13-yard pass and rolled to the ground before a defender could recover.
"A hundred percent of this is trust and communication," said Smith, who has already 1,0008 yards and seven touchdowns, but also threw his first interception against the Terrapins.
"I communicate with those guys and I trust them to run good routes. They expect me to get the ball to them on time."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.