Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Record-setting Week 5 makes WVU's Smith Heisman favorite

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Smith was 45 of 51 for 656 yards with 8 TDs and no INTs vs. Baylor on Saturday. (US Presswire)  
Smith was 45 of 51 for 656 yards with 8 TDs and no INTs vs. Baylor on Saturday. (US Presswire)  

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- One hour after Geno Smith crafted arguably the most prolific passing performance in major college football history, his teammates celebrated with their families and friends in the bustling halls of the West Virginia football complex. The Mountaineers had won their inaugural Big 12 game. Recruits, along with their high school coaches, lapped up the scene after marveling at the 70-63 fireworks display that was WVU's win over No. 25 Baylor.

Smith's mom was in town from South Florida, but their visit would have to wait for a bit longer. He handed her a box of pizza and retreated to the Mountaineers' offensive staff room for the next hour to examine the game film with quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital.

This is how the Heisman frontrunner enjoyed his record-setting afternoon, by looking for the flaws from a day where he went 45 of 51 for 656 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. When you have more TD passes than incompletions, you had a special day. The Mountaineers rolled up 807 yards of total offense, and that was without its big bruising back Shawne Alston.

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Smith's lament to the media was that he could have completed those other six passes and that he didn't lead the team to any points on its opening drive. Oh, and he probably forced a pass or two, rather than tucking the ball away and using his legs to pick up some yards.

One of the other things the film showed, which other WVU staffers later observed, was that on one of Smith's TD passes he actually checked to a play the Mountaineers didn't even have in the game plan this week. The senior QB had spotted something he could exploit in the Bears' coverage.

"He's really amazing," Spavital said. "He is just so competitive."

Away from football, Smith is a gifted visual artist, and not surprisingly carries that perfectionist sense and attention to detail and creativity over to the field. In less than two years, he has developed a keen understanding of Dana Holgorsen's up-tempo scheme. The results since late last season have been jaw-dropping. Skeptics can dismiss the ridiculous stats but should not be shrugging their shoulders at the caliber of defenses he's carving up. Just seeing him make the reads and throws he's making in itself is something to behold. He has thrown 26 TD passes since his last interception. In the process, he and Holgorsen have elevated WVU into a national brand, a team that has college football fans intrigued, even buzzing.

I recall being in the WVU quarterback meeting room about a year ago when Smith and backup QB Paul Millard were asking Spavital about all of the rumors over which conference the Mountaineers might end up in. Would the ACC take them? Were they staying in the Big East? Was the Big 12 an option? The question no one around the WVU football complex wanted to talk about? What if no other league wanted them? The truth was that the ACC didn't want West Virginia; also, the program's long-time home, the Big East, was being pushed off the college football map by the sport's power brokers. It was an odd bit of reality that crept into a game week as they prepped for mighty LSU.

Fast forward to Saturday and the Mountaineers are thriving as one of the most entertaining teams in the country, while their star and his spectacularly unpretentious head coach get comfy in their new home -- in the big time.

Holgorsen has been around more than his share of prodigious passers. He admitted after the game he worries about Smith's dogged pursuit of perfection and the toll it can take.

"He expects perfection -- and in the game of football, perfection is impossible," Holgorsen said.

Most Passing Yards per Game: Div. I
Yards Player, School (Year)
730 Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion (2012)
716 David Klingler, Houston (1990)
690 Matt Vogler, TCU (1990)
661 B.J. Symons, Texas Tech (2003)
656 Geno Smith, West Virginia (2012)
646 Graham Harrell, Texas Tech (2007)
643 Cody Hodges, Texas Tech (2005)

But Smith came pretty close on Saturday, and with the way his counterpart, Baylor QB Nick Florence, was lighting up the WVU defense, he needed to. Florence was 29 of 47 for 581 yards and five TDs.

Asked what Smith can do to get better, a bemused Holgorsen said, "He was 45 of 51 for 656 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. Can you please explain to me how you can improve on that?"

About his Heisman prospects, Smith said he couldn't care less -- he just wants to lead this team to more wins and to keep improving. That means continuing to hone his focus of defenses and his ability to manipulate them, both pre- and post-snap.

If the Mountaineers are going to make a run at a BCS title, though, their defense is going to have to improve a lot, starting next week at Texas. You can't allow a team to gain 700 yards of total offense or go 11 of 16 on third-down conversions and expect to run the table in a league loaded with top-25 caliber teams. They are clearly not in the Big East anymore.

The final score Saturday looked like something you'd expect from a quadruple-overtime game. We used to be wowed to see two 300-yard passing performances. This game had two 300-yard receiving performances.

Holgorsen reminded his team in the locker room after the game that the team they had just beaten came into Morgantown riding a nine-game winning streak. He also sounded genuinely impressed with the Bears' resolve and grit in how Art Briles' team kept battling back.

Holgorsen said after the game he'd be OK if his team had won 6-3. In reality, it's a lot more interesting at 70-63. The Mountaineers are getting people talking, offensive recruits especially. Their AD, former WVU star QB Oliver Luck, knows it's never a bad thing to have such a buzzworthy brand. He even joked at the halftime of the then 35-35 game that there was a hidden positive to this wild contest: "This'll be great for beer sales in the second half -- for our fans dealing with stress."

On Saturday, the best thing for dealing with that stress was having an elite QB and some talented receivers locked in like few college offenses ever have been.

The whole vibe all seems to fit very nicely together. Just like the sign on the road to Morgantown proclaims: "Welcome to West Virginia -- Wild and Wonderful."

Random Stuff

 Isaiah who? So much for Mark Richt's search to find a tailback. The Dawgs have two big-time backs in true freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who combined for almost 300 yards rushing and five TDs in a shootout win over Tennessee in Athens. I realize some people are probably wondering what happened to the vaunted Georgia D, but give credit to the Vols. They have a lot of firepower and plenty of experience.

 Geno Smith wasn't the only QB playing a variation of the Air-Raid system who had an epic day Saturday. Texas A&M thrashed Arkansas, 58-10 behind redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel's SEC record of 557 total yards of offense. As I wrote earlier this month, the Aggies have a special young talent and it is going to be a lot of fun watching him develop. In his past three games (since making his college debut), Manziel is averaging 102 rushing yards per game; 307 passing yards and the Aggies are scoring 59 points per game. The loss drops John L. Smith to 2-12 in his past 14 games as a head coach and the nightmare in Arkansas keeps getting worse.

A miserable offensive day didn't stop TCU's D, which picked SMU five times to help get a win. (Getty Images)  
A miserable offensive day didn't stop TCU's D, which picked SMU five times to help get a win. (Getty Images)  
 Oregon has faced two drastically different schemes in the past two weeks against Arizona and Washington State. And while it's fair to note that both of those programs are in their first year in those systems, the fact that the Ducks only allowed one touchdown in 11 combined red-zone trips is very impressive.

 Duke coach David Cutcliffe hasn't been shy about predicting big things from his Blue Devil program. In February of 2010, he guaranteed me that the Blue Devils would win an ACC football title in the "next 5-6 years." Quite frankly, it's been easy for folks to laugh off those comments. After all, the Blue Devils have been dismal over the years in football, but his staff has worked very hard to upgrade the talent base and now that's translating into success on the field. After Saturday's win over Wake Forest, Duke is 4-1, its best start in 18 seasons. Yeah, that ACC title call still sounds far-fetched and the Blue Devils toughest games are in the second half of their schedule, but there is finally reason for optimism about this school's football program.

 We expected the Sun Belt to notch another win over an FBS conference opponent, but figured it'd be Louisiana-Monroe over Tulane. The SBC got that, but also had Middle Tennessee thumping Georgia Tech 49-28.

 Texas QB David Ash has really blossomed. The big sophomore has handled crunch time well as he showed in the win at Oklahoma State. Beyond just leading UT on a late scoring drive, he helped the 'Horns to 9 for 17 on third downs and 3 of 3 on fourth downs.

 Going into this season, you had to wonder about the experience of the TCU D especially after some off-field issues cost Gary Patterson some key defenders. The Horned Frogs, though, appear just fine. Their nation's longest winning streak went up to 12 games after they beat SMU 24-16. TCU has allowed only three TDs in its first four games. Patterson also has another emerging big-play man on D in true freshman DE Devonte Fields, a former blue-chip recruit who led the Horned Frogs in tackles with seven, four were TFLs and he had 2.5 sacks. The 6-4, 240-pound Fields now has five sacks in his first four college games.

 Another week, another trip to In-N-Out Burger for Mike Riley's Oregon State squad after a solid road win in Pac-12 play. Time the rest of the country got to hear more about sophomore Sean Mannion, who threw for a career-high 433 yards and led a last-minute, winning TD drive in a 38-35 win at Arizona.

 For all of the jokes the Big East gets, Virginia Tech fans probably won't be making any. The Hokies, who lost to Cincinnati, are 0-2 this season against teams from their old league.

 Impressive work by Bill O'Brien and his staff rallying Penn State after the Nittany Lions 0-2 start. In the three games since, PSU is 3-0 and outscored its opponents 31-9. Up next: a 5-0 Northwestern squad led by do-everything Kain Colter.

 Fresno State leads the nation in picks with 11, which is more than double than what the Bulldogs had in all of 2011 (five to rank No. 112) and it's only two less than they had in the previous two seasons combined. FSU also has returned four interceptions for TDs already. That's more than 12 teams have receiving touchdowns this year.

 Boise State is really struggling, at least by Bronco standards. BSU barely hung on to beat New Mexico Saturday night. Worth noting: the Broncos are 0 for 7 in fourth down tries this season. Last year, they were 15-24.

 The five most penalized teams in the country -- La. Tech, Utah State, Nevada, UCLA and Oregon State -- are a combined 19-3.

 Stat of the Day: Six of the eight top-ranked passing offenses in the country have either played for Dana Holgorsen or have played against him this year: No. 1 WVU; No. 2 Baylor; No. 3 Marshall; No. 6 Oklahoma State; No. 7 Texas Tech; No. 8 Houston.


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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