What was the most impressive thing about Geno Smith's performance last week against Marshall?
Was it that he led West Virginia on two nearly length-of-the field drives in the final eight minutes on the road? Was it his two clutch, touch throws to the back of the end zone for the score and two-point conversion to tie matters with 12 seconds left? Was it the way he barked at offensive linemen on the sideline and asserted his command of the team?
No. The most impressive thing about Smith is that his coaches and teammates totally expected that the true sophomore could do all that in only his second college start.
"People asked me, 'Were you surprised?'" Mountaineers offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said. "I'm surprised anybody could lead two 90-yard drives in the fourth quarter for the win, because nobody can script or expect that. But I'm not surprised how he handled himself in that situation."
West Virginia has always had faith that Smith would make a great leader because of his uncanny poise. He's a guy who started all four years in high school in an offense similar to the Mountaineers' attack, and his coach even let him call the plays his final two years.
The Mountaineers witnessed his maturity last year, when he had to make his debut on the road at Auburn late in the game, taking over for an injured Jarrett Brown. Then he had to play almost the entire game against Marshall at home after Brown got hurt in the first quarter and led the team to the win. He also played the entire second half of the Gator Bowl against Florida State.
"I've been doing this for years," Smith said. "A lot of credit goes to my high school coach for preparing me for the next level. Then I just had to learn this offense, and I've pretty much mastered it. Now, it's about attacking defenses."
Smith said he never lost his calm in the Marshall game. Well, except for the time late in the game when he demanded better effort from his offensive linemen, who were allowing all sorts of penetration by the Thundering Herd defense much of the night. He even threw his helmet down on the sideline.
"You never want to rub guys the wrong way or make them think you don't believe in them," Smith says. "But when you see guys get down on themselves or losing confidence, you have to let them know it's time to step up and play. I was just trying to get the guys riled up."
Here's another impressive thing about Smith: Despite being sacked three times, despite being hurried and hit several more and despite coughing up a fumble while being sacked in the fourth quarter, he kept his cool. He maintained his focus downfield, bought extra time in the pocket when he needed it and then took what was available on those two long drives instead of anxiously shooting for the home run. There are some senior quarterbacks who can't do all that, especially on the road in a rivalry game.
"The way he was stepping out of the pocket and stepping up and making the throws he did was just incredible for a young quarterback," guard Josh Jenkins said. "We all had a lot of confidence in him already, but seeing him do those things makes us realize how great he really can be."
While Smith is leading the Big East in passing yards and completion percentage (72.2 percent), he's still young. Mullen said there were times in the Marshall game where Smith missed a read or his feet weren't set. Maybe if he makes those plays, the big comeback isn't needed.
"The stats look good and the outcome is fantastic, but there's still a lot of room for improvement," Mullen said. "He's got a long way to go, a long way to perfect his craft."
Still, Mullen calls Smith's poise "a gift," and coach Bill Stewart says his quarterback has got "it," that special quality all of the great ones have. That's illustrated by way Smith viewed others' reactions to his breakout performance.
"It got to the point where my phone was blowing up and Facebook was exploding and everything," he said of the aftermath of last week's win. "I appreciated the love people were showing me. But at the same time, I'm staying humble. I'm just going to work and make myself better."
That may be the most impressive thing of all about Geno Smith.