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Kovacevic: WVU's Smith the separator in Big East

Monday, Sept. 5, 2011

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Took me one stopwatch, two stadiums in two days, three-plus hours of apocalyptic storms and a whole lot of Geno Smith's gun-slinging, but I find this much safe to say about the Big East Conference: The road to the championship is I-79.

And not the portion that runs through Allegheny County.

Dana Holgorsen delivered a promising debut as the Mountaineers' coach Sunday night in officially defeating Marshall, 34-13, even if heavy rain, hail and lightning prompted the schools to call off the game with almost all of the fourth quarter remaining. No, the new man didn't get carried off on anyone's shoulders, and his team wasn't exactly dominating. But he scripted a diverse, dynamic aerial attack in which Smith's 249 passing yards made Milan Puskar Stadium a personal playground.

So, never mind that a still-soaked Holgorsen said afterward, "We're a work in progress. I don't think our offense played up to our standards."

West Virginia's no-huddle was good enough that it looked like it had a reason to hurry, compared to Pitt's hurry-up-and-pooch the previous night in getting by Buffalo, 35-16, at Heinz Field. Even without a running game to keep Marshall honest — a paltry 42 yards on the ground — Smith's targets sprayed about the field, the defense couldn't keep track, and play after play kept coming.

Let me say it clearly: The Mountaineers are the class of the Big East.

And the reason is Smith.

Poised and polished, the 6-foot-3 junior completed 26 of 35 passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions, including an eye-opening 11 of 13 when throwing 10 yards or longer. And the kid made it look like nothing. He delivered the ball with just the right touch, whether lofting softly on a sideline sprint, or bulleting to the back shoulder on a slant. He was heady, too, often connecting on second and third reads.

"You take what the defense gives you," Smith said. "It's never easy learning a new system, and Marshall came out and played us hard. But I think we worked really hard on offense."

Holgorsen's schemes bring a new canvas, but this part is very much a sequel: Smith was first-team all-Big East last season, tops in the conference in passing efficiency, and threw for 2,763 yards.

It's fun to imagine what he might achieve once Holgorsen's offense gets fully clicking. Unless, of course, you're a Pitt fan.

Remember, West Virginia and Pitt are the consensus top teams in the conference, with the Mountaineers getting 21 of 24 first-place votes in the preseason media poll, the Panthers getting two and South Florida one. Because of that, because of the Backyard rivalry, and now because of the personal enmity between Holgorsen and Pitt counterpart Todd Graham, it will be West Virginia and Pitt getting most of the measurements right up until the Nov. 25 Brawl.

Any comparison made now would be premature and convoluted, of course, in the face of last night's game being cut a quarter short. But hey, I'll go ahead, anyway, and give the Mountaineers the edge: Facing similar opponents, West Virginia ran 62 offensive plays to Pitt's 66 with a quarter to go, had 291 total yards to Pitt's 410, and Smith alone badly outperformed Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. On the other side of the ball, too, the Mountaineers' defense was on the field for 44 snaps to Pitt's astounding 93.

The Panthers did fare better in at least a couple areas: One, Ray Graham was Pitt's star with 201 rushing yards and three touchdowns, while West Virginia's Andrew Buie needed 15 carries to sweat out 30 yards, then left with an undisclosed injury. Two, the Panthers were far faster to the line of scrimmage, a vital component of the no-huddle.

That's where my stopwatch came into play: I tracked the time between snaps on 30 plays for each team, and West Virginia lined up in an average of 27.6 seconds, Pitt in 21.4. And Todd Graham's goal is to shave that to 18 seconds, which is pretty much where Sunseri and the offense were by the second half.

That's why I'll stress here: Don't discount the Panthers.

Sunseri isn't Smith, especially with the deep ball. But he's probably closer to that strong second half Saturday than his jitter-filled opening minutes. Ray Graham might be the running horse of the Big East, a weapon the Mountaineers don't have. And the Panthers' defense might never again be on the field for 93 snaps. They'll all be pretty good, certainly better than what they showed Saturday.

For now, though, it's easy to understand the near-unanimous choice of those Big East voters.

Add Dejan Kovacevic to your Google+ circles.




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