MORGANTOWN - There was a point last season - much of last season, in fact - when Geno Smith was just getting hammered by opposing defenses.In the first 11 games of 2011, in fact, he or backup Paul Millard were sacked at least once in every game except - oddly enough - the one against LSU. In a six-game stretch beginning at midseason, opponents averaged more than three sacks per game. Cincinnati and Pitt combined to drop Smith nine times.A funny thing happened on the way to being permanently battered and bruised, though. Smith stopped getting hit. In the four games since - South Florida and Clemson last season, Marshall and James Madison this - Smith has been sacked just once. Even his instances of getting hit at all have all but disappeared.The easy answer to why is that West Virginia's offensive line has performed better, which is probably true. But there's another, perhaps more significant, reason.Teams have just stopped blitzing."You're right, we hadn't seen much of that for a while,'' offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.Why? Well, go back to those same stat sheets that showed Cincinnati dropping Smith four times and Pitt five. Taken alone they are perhaps impressive. But the fact is that with Cincinnati blitzing, Smith threw for 372 yards and a touchdown and the Mountaineers knocked off the then-No. 18 Bearcats on the road. And Pitt gave up 244 passing yards, saw Smith throw just nine incompletions and the Panthers lost 21-20.
In other words, there's a risk to committing too many defenders to the pass rush against a seasoned quarterback with big-play receivers. And for the most part, the teams the Mountaineers have faced since then have not been willing to take that chance.James Madison did, though, especially late in the first half and in the second against the Mountaineers last Saturday. And while the results were not what the Dukes had hoped - Smith still hasn't been sacked since the South Florida game last season - they weren't what the Mountaineers hoped, either.That high-powered offense floundered a bit against the blitz, which should only encourage future opponents to do more of it. West Virginia's reaction? Bring it on."When people blitz and take chances, that should get our guys excited,'' Dawson said. "It's a chance for a big play. It has to be a mindset that we have to keep hammering home, that we want them to blitz.''
After not facing much pressure since early last December, though, Smith and the offense need to be a bit more prepared than they were against JMU."It's got a little bit to do with timing because you have to speed up your routes,'' Dawson said. "You've got to speed up your routes, and obviously the quarterback's got to get the ball out of his hand quicker. So it would behoove us to get open quicker.''Again, as it turned out, the blitz by James Madison didn't result in any sacks, but Smith did get hit a few times after releasing the ball, and big plays against the blitz were rare. He usually wound up scrambling or throwing the ball away."He got caught a couple of times and he got hit a couple of times,'' said coach Dana Holgorsen. "It was actually good to see James Madison hit us up like that because we hadn't seen that very much. We hadn't seen that very much for some time and we have to be able to recognize it and we to have be able to communicate up front as far as what's going on.''
For the most part the offensive line handled the pressure fairly well, but even that group wasn't entirely prepared."One time we had a miscommunication and one time they brought seven guys and we had six guys blocking,'' line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said. "That's the thing in pass protection, they can always outman you, every single down, if they want to.''They can also pick on younger players on that line. The interior of the line - center Joe Madsen and guards Josh Jenkins and Jeff Braun - know all about blitzes, having started a combined 92 games. Tackles Pat Eger and Quinton Spain, though, are fresh faced by comparison. But together they should be better at handling pressure now that they've been awoken to the fact that teams will still bring it."Those three guys have been playing together for a long time. We put a lot on those three guys, and they didn't play too well this past week,'' Holgorsen said. "They were relatively soft and their communication wasn't very good. We're going to challenge them to get better.''Just as importantly, though, Smith and his receivers and backs have to speed things up and learn to relish pressure."I know I say this all the time, but it really doesn't matter what they do,'' Dawson said. "It can't be about [the defense]. It's not about them. Did [JMU] change their scheme? Yes. Was it something we can't execute against? No. We just have to do our job.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.