By JOHN RABY
Whether it’s the shootout everyone expects or just a low-scoring defensive struggle, West Virginia’s Geno Smith will be ready for anything in his Big 12 debut.
The senior quarterback loves to play with energy and will have what should be an electrifying atmosphere in Saturday’s conference opener between the ninth-ranked Mountaineers (3-0) and No. 25 Baylor (3-0).
“I know everyone’s been anticipating this,” Smith said. “It’s conference play now. Anything goes in these types of games. We’re just going to expect everything and go out and do our best.”
Smith is second nationally in passing yards, passing efficiency and total offense. He has yet to throw an interception and will face a Baylor defense that is allowing 315 yards passing per game.
Only seven other FBS teams have allowed more.
Three solid games have thrust Smith into the Heisman Trophy discussion. The early part of the Big 12 schedule should go a long way toward determining whether he’ll stay there.
After playing Baylor, West Virginia has road games at No. 12 Texas and at Texas Tech.
West Virginia hasn’t seen this much Heisman talk since Major Harris finished in the top five in voting in 1988 and 1989. And Smith has come to expect it, especially after USC’s Matt Barkley had a lackluster game in a loss at Stanford earlier this month.
Smith, who along with Barkley attended Peyton and Eli Manning’s passing academy in Louisiana over the summer, isn’t focused on the hype.
“I hope Matt Barkley bounces back because he’s a great guy,” Smith said. “I understand that the accolades and the attention is just going to continue to come as we gain more success. I just want to be prepared for it, stay humble and just keep working as we always do.”
Smith is coming off a 4,000-yard season in 2011 and has thrown for 1,072 yards and 12 TDs already this season.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Smith said. “My guys have been doing a great job catching the ball, getting up field and making me look really good. I can’t say that all of the credit is on me. It’s just a product of the system and being around great guys. We wish to continue to get better, because it’s a long season. We have a long ways to go.”
Two keys that have contributed to Smith’s improved play: adding 10 pounds of muscle that has resulted in dart-like throws at longer distances and enabled him to shed potential sacks. His mental discipline and the critical thinking he often displays has its roots in his love for reading.
During his free time, the English major explores philosophy.
“I try and read as much as I can,” Smith said. “Plato. Einstein was a genius. There’s a lot of them. All of them have really kind of taught me a lot about life. I just like reading between the lines, trying to figure the end of the book at the beginning.”
Smith has eliminated some of the mental errors that dragged him down last year, including holding onto the ball too long. But he did face some challenges in a 31-21 win over Maryland last week.
The Terrapins blitzed often and had Smith out of his comfort zone. He threw more incompletions in the first half (nine) than he did in the first two games combined. On consecutive plays, Smith had his helmet ripped off and was sacked for the first time all season.
He threw into difficult coverage at times, but regained his composure to finish with 338 yards passing and three touchdowns.
“He did a great job of taking care of the ball,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “We put more on him in the pass game because we didn’t do a very good job of getting our run game going. He got hit a few times and didn’t allow that to affect his performance at all. I think he’s playing at a very high level.”
The offenses run by Smith and Baylor’s Nick Florence combine for 98 points a game, yet Smith wants foremost to ensure his unit isn’t the reason Florence gets more chances to score.
One of the most important stats to Smith: Baylor has six interceptions and has recovered four fumbles.
“Whoever touches that ball has got to make sure that we secure it when we’re going to the ground, and we don’t give them any extra possessions,” Smith said. “Because they are a really good offensive team and we know that, so we want to make sure not to turn the ball over or have careless mistakes, but then move the chains and put points on the board.”