Defense an Afterthought as Mountaineers Outslug Baylor - New York Times
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Come one, come all, the West Virginia fans did hither, to what Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby called “the big show in the state.” The stands were striped with gold and blue, each section alternating school colors, a stunt that had been planned since May. It was homecoming, and the Mountaineers’ inaugural Big 12 conference game, their only chance to make a first impression.
West Virginia’s 70-63 victory over No. 25 Baylor would be fun and frivolous. Touchdowns would be expected, defense not. It would seem to be a big show, not to be seriously appraised.
Center stage, the ninth-ranked Mountaineers’ quarterback Geno Smith made this season’s first bid for the Heisman Trophy. Its winners often need style as much as substance, a few big shows, perhaps. Smith completed 45 of 51 passes for 656 yards and 8 touchdowns.
In his first conference game replacing Robert Griffin III — last season’s Heisman winner, to whom Smith is often compared — Baylor’s starting quarterback, Nick Florence, almost kept up, throwing for 573 yards. So the game devolved into two top-10 scoring offenses taking turns.
Never mind the defenses, the first quarter’s pace had those watching panting and breathless. The four scoring drives averaged 2 minutes 30 seconds. Running backs found holes untouched. Wide receivers ran routes uninterrupted. Quarterbacks surveyed the field undisturbed.
The combined offensive skill felt cheapened though, by each defense’s ineptitude, by the game’s lack of mystery or intrigue. It was only 14-14.
Nary did the crowd have time to applaud the West Virginia offense, as the defense allowed another score. In the span of three snaps in the second quarter, the spectacle became comical. First, Smith dropped a 47-yard pass over Stedman Bailey’s shoulder, over two chasing defenders, for a touchdown. Two plays later, Florence hit his receiver Tevin Reese in stride for a 65-yard score.
But the crowd had no need to worry: five plays later, Smith threw another touchdown to Bailey to hold even, 28-28.
With 59 seconds left in the first half, and West Virginia driving, Baylor called timeout, indicating the Bears believed there was still enough time to gain possession and score. Smith found Bailey for their third-straight touchdown.
Then, on the final play of the first half, Florence scrambled left, and just staying behind the line of scrimmage, floated a pass to Lanear Sampson, who was running free. Two West Virginia defenders fell nipping at his Sampson’s heels, and he scored. Somehow, the score was 35-35. Television executives “like game’s like this first half as long as it stays that way till the end,” Bowlsby said at halftime.
For Smith, the show went on. With the benefit of time, skilled receivers and Coach Dana Holgorsen’s Air Raid offense, Smith played as he would in his backyard. He sprayed passes with precision. Holgorsen acknowledged that Smith watches more film than he does.
“I oftentimes think I’m going nuts,” Smith said last week, adding: “I find something wrong in everything. I critique myself to the point where I don’t even think I’m a good player. Other people say I’m pretty good; so that’s what keeps me afloat.”
There was little to fault in his next two touchdowns: beautifully thrown passes of 45-yards and 52-yards to receiver Tavon Austin. Consistent with a backyard, pickup game, Smith had his favorites: Austin, J. D. Woods, and Bailey, who attended high school with Smith, caught 40 passes. With 303 receiving yards, Bailey set a school record. There had been plenty of open receivers to choose from.
When Smith connected with Bailey in the fourth quarter for a fifth touchdown together — a 39-yard strike — the show had devolved further: pitch and catch.
West Virginia’s defense had forced Baylor to punt on its first third-quarter possession, and Florence regained his footing, but the Bears couldn’t catch up.
“They’re going to have to play at a higher level, perhaps, than they have had to play every week and every week in the past,” Bowlsby said of the Mountaineers’ joining the Big 12. “But they’re certainly capable of doing that.”