MORGANTOWN - When last Geno Smith encountered Syracuse and its defense, the results were not pretty.In fact, at no time has West Virginia's quarterback been successful against the Orange. In three years as the Mountaineers' starting quarterback, Syracuse is the only team Smith has faced more than once and not beaten.That Smith and the Mountaineers will get one last shot is rather ironic, of course. The teams meet Dec. 29at Yankee Stadium in the Pinstripe Bowl.Smith sees it not so much as irony, but as fate.
"I feel like it's almost God's funny way of putting things together,'' Smith said. "He's been doing that a lot for me lately.''Indeed, if there was any opponent Smith might like a do-over against, it is the Orange. Sure, there have been other low points during his career. That ugly five-game losing streak this season included a bunch of them. There were games in there - and others throughout the past three seasons - when teams seemed to have his number.But no team has repeatedly stymied Smith like Syracuse.As a sophomore in 2010, the Orange won 19-14 at Mountaineer Field, intercepting Smith three times, limiting him to 178 yards passing (despite the fact that his 37 attempts that day were his second-most all year) and sacked him five times. In the final minutes of that game, Smith methodically drove the Mountaineers to a second down at the SU 20 with a minute to play, then was sacked twice and hit as he threw incomplete to put the finishing touches on an awful afternoon.
Then in 2011, it was even worse, if that's possible. Syracuse just blew up the Mountaineers, winning 49-23 at the Carrier Dome. It was an awful Syracuse team, too. The Orange had squeaked out close wins over powerhouses Wake Forest, Rhode Island, Toledo and Tulane (three in overtime and the other by a touchdown) and wouldn't win another game.Yet on that Friday night, the Orange sacked Smith four times and intercepted him twice. He did have 338 yards passing, but what did that matter?"I studied the film of that game all summer, figuring out ways to defeat that coverage,'' Smith said. "I knew that defensive coordinators would see how they did it and try to duplicate it or copycat it. I know exactly what they're doing. They may change some things up, maybe not. But I'll be prepared for their defense.''What the Orange did was blitz and mix coverages. Syracuse didn't just blitz, the Orange blitzed creatively. Coach Dana Holgorsen said that after studying the film, 17 of SU's first 18 blitzes were different. Holgorsen and his staff weren't around for that 2010 game, but were schooled in 2011.
The biggest difference between then and now, though - or at least Smith, Holgorsen and everyone else concerned hopes is the case - is that last year at Syracuse was the seventh game in Holgorsen's system. The Pinstripe Bowl will be the 26th.And experience matters."Last year I think Syracuse caught us at a time when we really didn't expect that,'' Smith said. "That's not to say we weren't prepared, but they were doing some things that it would take a veteran in the offense, a group of guys who had been together for a while, to understand how to counterattack it and beat it. That's the luxury of us being here two years in the system now. Since that game we've grown tremendously. I think it's going to be a totally different ballgame.
"We've seen other teams do things like that. Maryland tried to do it this year.''Of course, it's hard to say that mere experience in the offense will make a huge difference. That experience was there when the Mountaineers played Kansas State, too, and the Wildcats held Smith to 143 yards passing. Syracuse is no Kansas State, but still, it's obvious that the system itself and experience in it provides no guarantees of success.But facing the Orange for a third time certainly provides an opportunity to show what, if any, differences there are once everyone is on the same page."That  loss wasn't so much a wakeup call as it was something that let us know that we had to be on the same page and that there were nuances within the offense that we didn't quite understand,'' Smith said. "Those things that we didn't know then, we know now."They like to blitz and pretty much attack the offense. But we have veterans and guys who have seen that a lot now. No one will be wide-eyed. We're expecting it and I'm pretty sure we'll be prepared for it.''It's also an opportunity - the last one - for Smith to show his future prospective employers in the NFL what kind of advancements he's made.
"I think it will be a good way to show my progress over the years,'' Smith said. "It'll be a good way for NFL scouts and whoever is watching to examine me as a quarterback because they're going to do some things that are off the charts, that you don't see every day in college football. Those things, overloaded blitzes and mixing things up in coverage, those are things you see on Sunday.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.