WVU quarterback Smith happy for one last shot at Syracuse

| Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, 8:14 p.m.

West Virginia senior quarterback Geno Smith chuckled when he discovered he will oppose Syracuse in his final college football game.

“I feel like it's almost God's funny way of putting things together,'' Smith said about the Mountaineers playing the Orange in Saturday's 3:15 p.m. New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Smith's sense of humor nearly rivals his prodigious football talent. But if there's one team that Smith struggled to beat, it's Syracuse.

Smith is 0-2 as a starter against the Orange, losing 19-14 at home in 2010 and 49-23 in 2011 at the Carrier Dome. He tossed five interceptions and was sacked nine times in the two losses.

Asked if he had a bowl opponent preference, Smith said, yes, and that he got his wish because he wanted to face Syracuse one more time.

“It's ironic,” said Smith, WVU's career passing leader and the only player in school history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season (he accomplished the feat in back-to-back campaigns). “Deep down, that's who we wanted to play.”

WVU and Syracuse feature identical 7-5 records. The Mountaineers concluded the regular season with two consecutive wins; Syracuse closed with three straight wins and won five of its last six games.

The teams have no common opponents this season, but they are familiar with each other as former Big East rivals.

WVU coach Dana Holgorsen knows what to expect from Syracuse's attacking, blitzing defense. But that doesn't mean the Mountaineers will find success against their nemesis.

“They led the Big East in tackles for loss. They blitz and get into some crazy stuff,” Holgorsen said. “Seventeen of (their) first 18 blitzes were different, so we have to identify that and get into the right play.”

That responsibility falls on Smith, who must make the proper read and deliver the ball quickly before the pass rush arrives.

In his first meeting against Syracuse — his seventh career start — Smith completed 20 of 37 passes for only 178 yards and a touchdown. The following year, Smith was 24 of 41 for 338 yards and two scores. However, Smith never was able to settle into a passing rhythm in either game.

“I studied film all summer, figuring out ways to defeat that coverage,” Smith said. “I know exactly what they're doing. They like to blitz and attack the offense. They may change things up, but I'll be prepared. I think it's going to be totally different.”

Holgorsen took over in 2011, so he wasn't around for the 2010 loss. But he sees growth in his offense, through Smith, who could be the first quarterback selected in April's NFL Draft.

Smith's maturity level could be the difference in Saturday's game.

“We didn't play well when we went up there (last year), and that was the turning point with Geno, as far as what they did defensively,” Holgorsen said. “They have good players, but their scheme got us a little bit. We'll see how much improvement we made on specific looks. He (Smith) has matured a bunch, and from a scheme standpoint, he is going to be able to see that and make some pretty good checks; I feel comfortable about that.

“I think we are a lot better both from a coaching standpoint, from a scheme standpoint and from an understanding standpoint. We are a lot better now than last year when we played Syracuse. If they get into a bunch of crazy stuff, I feel like we are going to have some answers.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.

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