|The conditions and an active Syracuse defense made things difficult on Smith (No. 12). (US Presswire)|
A disappointing performance in Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl from West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith will drop his NFL draft stock and trigger a race between a group of rather underwhelming candidates to be the first passer selected in the 2013 NFL draft.
Smith, playing Syracuse for the first time since a humbling upset loss to the Orangemen in October 2011, was sacked for one safety and drew a flag for intentional grounding for another in a 38-14 loss on the snow-covered turf of Yankee Stadium.
Smith's statistics weren't bad (16-for-24 for 187 yards, two TDs/0 INTs), but they were significantly inflated by three big plays to Stedman Bailey that, after closer review, weren't as impressive in reality as they are in print.
Each of the first two completions, good for 32 yards (and a touchdown) and 59 yards, respectively, came off of quick screens in which Smith soft-tossed the ball just a few yards. Smith threw what looked like a well-placed deep ball down the left sideline to Bailey for a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter, but the throw was made easier when the Syracuse defender covering Bailey lost his footing, leaving the WVU pass catcher alone for the uncontested reception. Other than those three plays, Smith completed 13 passes for a total of 67 yards in the final game that he'll play for West Virginia.
Statistics, of course, can be bent to prove just about anything in football, but the reality is Smith made troubling mental and physical errors against Syracuse. He failed to recognize the blitz off the right side that led to his taking the sack for the first safety. Worse, he was not consistently accurate, short-hopping intermediate routes down the middle and the sideline and sailing a deep ball far out of bounds against single coverage.
To be fair to Smith (and Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib), the conditions weren't favorable. It was snowing throughout the game, and the moisture made for poor footing and a slick ball. Both teams dropped several well-thrown passes, and there were botched center-quarterback exchanges from both sides, as well.
It wasn't such terrible conditions, however, that the talent evaluators in attendance won't grade the quarterbacks harshly, especially Smith, who has previously struggled in poor weather.
For the West Virginia passer, Saturday was the complete opposite of the eye-popping performance of nearly a year ago that sparked his rise to the top of the quarterback charts.
Boasting better size, arm strength, athleticism and statistics than preseason darling Matt Barkley, the 6-3, 215 pound Smith shot up past the USC Trojans' star to the top of NFLDraftScout.com's board. While Barkley and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson were adjusting to inexperienced supporting casts, Smith started off the regular season just the way he'd begun 2012, by shredding defenses. Over a six-game stretch extending from last year's 70-33 demolishing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl to a rousing victory over Texas on Oct. 6, Smith was magnificent, tossing 31 touchdowns and zero interceptions and leading WVU to an undefeated record.
Texas Tech provided the blueprint for shutting down the mighty West Virginia offense a week later, however, by pressuring Smith early and limiting the run-after-catch ability of Bailey and his teammate Tavon Austin. The Mountaineers would lose their next four games and, as it turns out, six of their final eight.
The perception -- whether deserved or not -- will be that Smith failed to lead the Mountaineers to victories in six of their last games.
The 2013 class of quarterbacks is lacking in the "sure things" of recent years. The tight rankings could force Smith to play in the Senior Bowl or another prominent all-star game to stabilize his stock.
If he were to do so -- and wound up going No. 1 overall as Dane Brugler and I are currently projecting -- it would be the first time a quarterback who played in a senior all-star game was the first passer selected in his respective draft class since 2003. That year, talent evaluators got to watch then-USC star Carson Palmer erase any doubt that he was the top prospect with a spectacular week in Mobile, Ala., in the Senior Bowl.
Regardless of whether Smith elects to play one last game with the Mountaineers' helmet or wait for the workout sessions from the Combine and/or his Pro Day, nervous NFL decision-makers are eager to see a quarterback -- any quarterback -- pull away in the race to April.