Saturday, September 18, 2010
New stars feed West Virginia optimism
By Brian Bennett
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Earlier in their careers, Noel Devine and Jock Sanders dubbed themselves the Batman and Robin for West Virginia. Then they changed it to Batman and Superman for equal footing.
This spring, Devine included Tavon Austin in the discussion.
Quarterback Geno Smith is emerging as a major force for West Virginia.
"Hopefully, we'll be Sonic, Knuckles and Tails," he said, making a reference only Sega Genesis fans could love.
The cast of super heroes keeps multiplying for the Mountaineers, as they showed in Saturday's 31-17 win over Maryland. Austin produced a breakout game to prove he belongs in the same sentence as Devine and Sanders, while receiver Stedman Bailey, quarterback Geno Smith and defensive end Bruce Irvin all continue to emerge as major forces as well.
When they all were clicking Saturday, West Virginia raced to a 28-0 lead and looked more dominant than it had since the height of the Pat White era. This team still hasn't learned to put opponents in a death grip, as a few second-half breakdowns illustrated. But the No. 21 Mountaineers look capable of being the best team in the Big East and possibly even beating LSU next week, if their stars align.
"I always knew what we had," Devine said. "It was just a matter when we were going to put it together."
That time arrived in an impressive first half. West Virginia scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions, stopping itself only with a lost fumble in Terrapins territory. Smith connected on his first 10 passes and finished 19-of-29 for 268 yards and four touchdowns in his third career start.
How good has Smith been? From the last two drives in regulation of the Marshall game to the first drive of Saturday's third quarter, Smith went 29-of-36 for 377 yards and six touchdowns.
"This is new for y'all, but it's something I've been seeing with my own vision," Devine said. "It's a relief when you don't have to worry about the quarterback position."
Smith's first two touchdown throws went to Austin on the same route. The sophomore had the best game of his career with seven catches for 106 yards. Better yet, he did it against the flagship school of his home state, which tried and failed to recruit him.
"I felt a lot of pressure," he said. "If we would have lost, a lot of people would have called me and said, 'I told you you should have gone to Maryland!'"
Instead, the Terrapins seemed to have forgotten about Austin early on as he was left wide open in the passing game. Austin had never played receiver before college and switched to wideout this year as he waits to succeed Devine at tailback. Despite being listed at just 5-foot-9 and admitting he barely knows what he's doing, he's the leading receiver in the Big East so far.
Redshirt freshman Stedman Bailey is much more polished at wideout. A high school teammate of Smith's, Bailey caught his first two touchdown passes and looks like West Virginia's best pure receiver prospect in years. Both his touchdown calls survived instant replay reviews; that's because both were tough catches.
"One was a terrible throw by me ,and he bailed me out," Smith said. "He has great hands. He catches everything."
Devine ran for 131 yards, surpassing 100 for the third straight game. Sanders had six catches for 86 yards and a 66-yard punt return to set up a score. Maryland had no match for West Virginia's speed and cast of playmakers.
"A couple of years ago, we were a run-based offense and the spread option," Smith said. "But now we're developing a great passing game. I think that makes it hard for defensive coordinators to game plan against us."
The star performances weren't limited to the offense. The defense heard all week that it hadn't registered a sack in its first two games. So on Saturday it rang up eight against the Terrapins, including three by Irvin, the heralded junior college import who made his first big impact this season.
"That first sack, it felt like I was standing on Mars or something," Irvin said. "The first few games, teams were throwing screens and taking quick drops. I don't even think Dwight Freeney could get a sack on a three-step drop."
Not everything went smoothly for West Virginia in the second half. Maryland scored 17 straight points, including 60- and 80-yard touchdown passes from Jamarr Robinson to Torrey Smith. Both long throws came in single coverage against Pat Miller, a sophomore making his first career start in place of suspended Brandon Hogan. That remains an area of major concern going forward.
Take those two plays away, though, and Maryland managed just 77 total yards, including negative-10 yards rushing on 27 attempts.
"Forty-nine of those 51 plays were pretty impressive," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said of his defense. "Two were just frustrating."
But frustration was minimal for the Mountaineers, who rebounded from a shaky performance last week at Marshall to post the first win over a BCS conference team by the Big East all season. They can really carry the conference banner next week by winning at LSU.
"We've still got to get better," Irvin said. "That's the real test."
Sounds like a job for Sonic, Knuckles, Tails & friends.