West Virginia's Smith follows Griffin's lead

Posted Sept. 30, 2012 @ 9:20 p.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

In West Virginia’s welcoming game into the Big 12 Conference, QB Geno Smith made a grand entrance, shredding the record books with the type of statistical performance in front of a nationally televised audience against an undefeated, ranked opponent that propels Heisman Trophy hopefuls to the top of the list.

In his second season in Dana Holgorsen’s spread offense, Smith looked very at ease in the pocket, completing 45(-of-51) passes for 656 passing yards and eight touchdowns — all school records that were set in a prolific shootout against a soft Baylor defense, which employed a three-man pass rush the majority of the game. That allowed Smith to comfortably carve up the Bears.

A year after Baylor QB Robert Griffin III catapulted up draft boards by showing off a deft downfield touch, dazzling display of moves and an exceptionally efficient TD-interception ratio to continually overcome a bad defense, Smith is following suit. Through four games, he’s completing a nation’s best 83.4 percent of his passes with a 20-0 TD-INT ratio that exceeds Griffin’s eye-opening start in 2011.

Where Smith differs from Griffin, however, is in his ability as a runner. Where Griffin could bring the ball down, spin out of a tackle, reset his feet and either connect on a long ball or rip off a 50-yard scamper of his own, Smith is relatively stationary in the pocket. Also, his production vs. Baylor was heavily padded by the big-play ability of star WRs Tavon Austin, who hauled in 14 catches for 215 yards and two TDs — including a five-yard slant that he broke for a 45-yard TD — and junior WR Steadman Bailey, who racked up a whopping 13-303-5 receiving.

Smith will not have 5-7 seconds to wait for late-breaking routes to uncover in the pro game and will be forced to make more than the pre-determined reads that make Holgorsen’s offense so QB-friendly to thrive in the NFL.

He entered the year regarded in the scouting community as a third-round talent, but is quickly climbing. He has a tendency to throw off his back foot when his feet are not set and his mechanics still could be tightened. When faced with three oncoming blitzers early in the game, however, he released it quickly for a score and has shown improved downfield touch and accuracy, hitting receivers in stride.

• Penn State senior LB Michael Mauti, one of the leaders of the program who did not bolt when the Nittany Lions were hit hard by NCAA sanctions, recorded two interceptions, including one he returned 99 yards, falling a yard short of the goal line in a 35-7 victory over Illinois.

• Not to be lost in Baylor’s 70-63 loss to West Virginia was the outstanding performance of Bears senior WR Terrance Williams, perhaps best known for catching the game-winning TD from Robert Griffin III vs. Oklahoma a year ago. He grabbed 17-314-2 vs. the Mountaineers, tracking and adjusting to the ball very well against coverage.

• Following in the footsteps of Julio Jones, Alabama true freshman WR Amari Cooper is making his presence felt as an immediate-impact difference maker and adds to the growing collection of unique talent that Nick Saban continues to successfully recruit.

• After being denied eligibility at Faulkner University, former Miami (Fla.) S Ray-Ray Armstrong will stay with the NAIA program in a volunteer coaching capacity. He is taking classes to graduate in December and still plans to enter the 2013 NFL draft.

• Ohio State shut down Michigan State junior RB Le’Veon Bell with ease, holding him without a first down on 17 carries and often closing gaps before he could step through the line. Against the best defense Bell has seen this season and the type of competition he will face on a consistent basis in the pros, he was contained, which will not bode well for his draft status.

• Down 30-27 and set to cross the 50-yard line against Nebraska late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, Wisconsin RB Montee Ball met eyes with Nebraska senior “Buck” LB Alonzo Whaley, who was shooting through the line unblocked, and fumbled a well-placed handoff for the second time in two weeks. This time, Ball’s fumble cost the Badgers a chance at tying the game.

• With Tennessee trailing 51-44 and driving down the field with less than two minutes to play, Vols junior QB Tyler Bray was stripped by Georgia standout freshman OLB Jordan Jenkins and the ball was recovered by senior NT John Jenkins to preserve the win.

• At 5-9 3⁄8, 205 pounds and possessing 4.6 40-speed, Middle Tennessee senior RB Benny “Bam” Cunningham entered the season as an afterthrought on the radar of NFL scouts, but after a hard-charging, tackle-breaking 27-217-5 rushing performance that keyed a 49-28 victory over Georgia Tech, NFL evaluators will need to spend more time sizing up the senior with very modest career production. At a position that often produces gems in undrafted free agency, Cunningham showed the competitiveness and tenacity worthy of a look.