WVU football: Smith ready for last game with Mountaineers
BRONX, N.Y. -- If there was a criticism of Geno Smith this season - and that presumes such a thing is possible when he again set so many records while so much of West Virginia's trouble was tethered to its defense - it has been handled and molded into a compliment.
"He needed to understand he can only control the things he's responsible for," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He just kept playing and I'm proud of how he did that. Yes, he got discouraged, but he kept working hard and he kept getting better with technique. He kept going out there in practice and he got people around him better."
To hear Holgorsen tell it, his star quarterback's greatest flaw during his senior season, which ends in Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse (7-5), is that the array of mental and physical capabilities that allowed him to do so many things for the Mountaineers also convinced him he could do everything for the Mountaineers.
Never was that more true, or more detailed, than during WVU's five-game losing streak that followed its 5-0 start. Again and again, Holgorsen would mention Smith's drive and desire and that Smith needed to scale it back just a bit. Instead of worrying about the problems he could neither prevent nor repair, he said Smith needed to focus on making the most of what he had his hands on in the offense.
"The things he can't control from a run-game standpoint and a defensive standpoint put us in the loss category a couple of times, but eventually he didn't worry about all that," Holgorsen said. "Yes, he did put some of the blame on himself, but he still came to work and tried the very hardest he possibly could and that shows character. That's what kind of kid he is."
The reality of the situation is that Smith always has been that kind of kid, going as far back as when he was growing up in Miami. There, he got to know Stedman Bailey. Their mothers were friends and they'd talk at church on Sundays about how they were doing in school and in life, but mostly about how they were doing in football.
Bailey was making a name for himself at Miami's Carol City High, Smith at Miramar High. They concocted a plan to play together for the Patriots. In 2008, Miramar reached the Class 6A state semifinals, Smith was Florida's Class 6A player of the year, second in Mr. Florida voting and a Parade Magazine All-American and Bailey was first-team all-state.
All along, though, they had their eyes on something greater. When WVU (7-5) plays the Orange in the 3:15 p.m. game at Yankee Stadium, it'll be their final college game together. Soon after, they'll begin preparations for April's NFL Draft. Smith could be the first quarterback picked, if not the first overall pick, while Bailey, a redshirt junior, decided to skip his final season to enter the NFL early.
"It's kind of what we envisioned as 15-year-olds," Smith said. "Back then we knew that if we worked as hard as we could that we could possibly set ourselves up in position to take care of our families for a long time. That was kind of the agreement we made. I was going to push him and he was going to push me."
No one pushes Smith harder than Smith, which is something to consider as he prepares for Syracuse. Smith is 0-2 as a starter against the Orange.
The Mountaineers had won eight straight in the series. In 2010, Smith was 20-for-37 for 178 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in a 19-14 loss.
A year later he was 24-for-41 for 338 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 49-23 loss.
He strives for perfection, though he'll admit it's not attainable. It remains his target, though, and it became his obsession this season.
He'd have spectacular statistics and people would wonder what he could have done better. Smith would counter the question with one of his own and ask how many incomplete passes he had.
The answer would come and he'd state, "I could have completed those."
When the Mountaineers beat James Madison at FedEx Field in September, Smith was 34-for-39 for 411 yards and five touchdowns.
But in the first half, he was 23-for-28 and he told his quarterbacks coach, Jake Spavital, he wouldn't throw another incomplete pass. And he didn't.
In the final game of the regular season, Smith was 23-for-24 for 407 yards and three touchdowns. That was the fourth time touchdown passes outnumbered incomplete passes, the seventh 300-yard passing game and the third 400-yard game.
He was bummed out about the incomplete pass, a first-quarter interception where his throw under pressure to Bailey was a tick too slow and let a cornerback step in front of it for Smith's sixth interception. He was that close to perfection.
In between the JMU game and the Kansas game, Smith and the Mountaineers had dizzying highs and devastating lows. The 5-0 start had the team in the top five for the first time in five years.
The next five games were all losses, the longest losing streak since 1986.
His five lowest completion percentages, five of his interceptions, his only two games without multiple touchdown passes and three of his five games with fewer than 300 yards passing came during the losing streak.
Holgorsen tried to free Smith of the blame and Smith said he actually handled it better than he expected.
"That's how I've grown mentally," he said. "I can look back three or four years ago and had I been in this situation, I probably wouldn't have handled it well. I remember losing to UConn my first year starting (2010) and I had to go back home just to talk to my mom. I was down in the dumps and she picked me up.
"Now she's calling me, like, 'Are you OK?' And I'm, like, 'Yeah, I'm fine.' That's different for her, but I feel like I've grown a lot in that respect."
Should Smith be invited to the draft combine in Indianapolis, his measurables and his performance there will go a long way toward determining where he'll be drafted.
Teams will assess his arm strength in drills and his personality in interviews. They'll test the strength he's developed through the years, but also take a look at his left foot that's been broken twice in college.
At WVU, though, there is no doubt about his future, wherever it may be.
"Geno's going to play for a long time," Holgorsen said. "He has everything you can ask for as far as skill set goes. I don't care what offense they run. He's going to play for a long time."
Holgorsen's confidence matters little, but confidence has never been a problem for Smith. Perhaps it contributed to some of his overeager struggles this season as he wrestled with his unquestioned ability and how widely he thought he could apply it, but he's learned to control it throughout the season.
He knows that what is waiting for him at the next level, where he won't be able to rely on will and talent alone, is going to demand the same approach.
"One thing I do know is the team selecting me is going to be helping out its franchise because I'm going to be all for the team and I'm going to put every ounce of what I've got into winning games," he said. "That's really the way I look at the game of football now. It's about winning games no matter who gets credit for it. Once you're between those lines, it's about winning.
"I think as long as I continue to keep that mentality, I'm going to get better because I haven't reached my prime. As far as physical ability goes, I'm still blossoming, and the same goes for the mental part."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.