Entering the 2011 season, the West Virginia Mountaineers sported a new head coach in Dana Holgorsen after Bill Stewart was fired for allegedly leaking information about Holgorsen's party habits in an effort to have the then-head-coach-in-waiting.
They also had a junior quarterback who was coming off a solid sophomore season in his first year as a starter -- Geno Smith, the current Heisman frontrunner who is battling USC quarterback Matt Barkley to be the first quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.
While Smith wasn't on the radar of many fans in this part of the country coming out of high school, his success in college hasn't entirely been a surprise. A product of Miramar, Florida, Smith held offers from Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Michigan, and Oregon. Considered a dual threat even though he hasn't run the ball much in college, Rivals had Smith rated as one of the top 150 prospects in the country and the third best at his position. The pedigree was there.
Known as a pass-first quarterback in high school, Smith displayed all the same attributes that have made him so successful in college -- an ability to get through his progressions, a live arm that allows him to reach every part of the field with ease, a quick delivery, and strong mechanics that help him change speeds.
As good as Smith was in 2011, the major leap has been from his junior to his senior season. In his first year under Holgorsen, the only really notable increase in his numbers were his attempts, no surprise given the predilections of the Skulleted One. He threw four more touchdown passes, the same number of interceptions, increased his yards per attempt by roughly a yard, and increased his completion percentage roughly a point.
This season, however, has seen Smith increase his completion percentage to a ridiculous 83.4%, average over 10 yards per attempt, connect on 20 touchdown passes to zero interceptions. Just crazy, video game-like numbers, aided by his refined ability to make the deep and intermediate throws with touch.
Even with all that going on, what stands out is that he's only been sacked three times this season, an indication that he's often allowed to spend plenty of time standing in the pocket and that blitzes sent rarely reach home.
Against Baylor, Bears defensive coordinator Phil Bennett opted to play conservatively on defense, rushing only three defensive linemen and dropping eight players into coverage on virtually every play. As a result, Smith stood in the pocket and picked apart the porous secondary, getting into the zone to the extent that it was absolutely shocking to see a pass delivered even a hair off throughout the game, even though he threw a variety of passes all over the field.
It was truly a masterful performance that would be tough to achieve against air for most quarterbacks, which Smith was pretty much doing given the numerous coverage busts by the Bears.
However, against Maryland it was a slightly different story. The Terrapins managed to hold West Virginia to 31 points in the game, including only seven in the second half. In the first half, Smith threw nine incompletions in that frame, as many as he'd thrown in the first two games combined, in large part due to pressure in his face brought by numerous Maryland blitzes, a strategy on the opposite end of the spectrum from that employed by Baylor.
After watching the game against the Bears, it was somewhat shocking to see Smith have so many misfires in the first half, several of which weren't really forced.
Additionally, Smith also either checked down too often or waited too long to deliver passes, illustrating the impact that pressure has on a quarterback who seems to rely heavily on rhythm and clean pockets from which to survey the field. As good as he is moving from his first to his second or third read, Smith seems to have struggled some in that regard against Maryland when he started getting hurried.
In the second half, the West Virginia star was more efficient and said after the game that he and his team adjusted to the different coverages and looks given by the Terrapins, though the results weren't obvious on the field -- a single touchdown and punts on four of five possessions, not including the final effort that killed the last four minutes and change on the game clock.
According to The Smoking Musket contributor Country Roads, Smith has struggled in the past when opponents can consistently get pressure in his face. The sense is that, perhaps more than most quarterbacks who do have problems when not given an ideal amount of time, Smith relies heavily on his sense of rhythm and timing in the passing game. Disrupt it, and the preternatural accuracy from a clean pocket can start deteriorating.
In that sense, it seems as if Bennett made a significant miscalculation by not at least attempting to get free defenders into the offensive backfield early, but then he might have been concerned about giving up 80-yard plays every time he did that. After it became apparent that the Bears were going to give up points no matter what, Bennett could have at least tried altering his approach and taking more chances, having little to lose.
The West Virginia offense is not completely unstoppable, if Texas can execute a similar gameplan to that employed by Maryland. That's the good news. The bad news is that if he has time, Smith can be as dangerous as any quarterback the Longhorns have faced in these halcyon years of Big 12 spread offenses.