West Virginia looks to rev up stalled offense

A week ago at this time, Geno Smith looked like the favorite for the Big East Offensive Player of the Year award. Or, as West Virginia coach Bill Stewart described it, people were "writing ballads" about him (prompting one wag to try out his songwriting skills).

It was easy to forget, thanks to his poise and maturity, that Smith was making just his seventh career start as a true sophomore. Bad days happen for young quarterbacks, and Smith had one at a bad time, throwing three interceptions in a 19-14 loss to Syracuse. The Orange defense had a lot to do with it, of course, but Smith knows he made too many mistakes.

"They pushed the pocket a little bit," he said this week, "but for the most part it was me holding the ball too long. I wasn't sharp with my reads. I don't think it was anything they did in particular; it was more just on us."

Smith's inevitable bump in the road might have exposed a major flaw for the Mountaineers. Without their young quarterback at his best, they had few other options and were shut out for the final 46 minutes. It was telling that Syracuse contented itself with punting and playing field position the entire second half, so confident were the Orange that West Virginia wouldn't make them pay.

What happened to the high-powered Mountaineers offense that once scared the bejesus out of defenses? That's been the subject of much hand-wringing throughout West Virginia this week, as the team has averaged a meager 17 points in its two Big East games.

"I see a lot of good that we’re doing," Stewart said. "I just don’t see consistency. Are we masters of any one particular thing? No. We’ve got to get better."

In their last three games against BCS conference opponents (Syracuse, USF and LSU), the Mountaineers have averaged just 81 yards rushing as a team. Much of that can be attributed to Noel Devine's foot injury, yet West Virginia should have enough playmakers to run the ball better than that.

Stewart isn't going back to the spread option, but this week he suggested that Smith might be asked to run the ball more. Smith, a pocket passer who'll never be confused with Pat White, has 140 rushing yards on the season.

"I haven't heard that," Smith said when asked about Stewart's comments. "But me running the ball has been part of the game plans throughout the season. We just haven't gotten to it. If that happens, I'm up for it, but it's not something you want to force."

Stewart said there are "no magical calls" he can make to improve the offense, and it's all about blocking better, finishing drives and getting the ball to the playmakers. He and his staff have diversified the offense since the Rich Rodriguez days, but some question whether West Virginia now has one thing on which it can hang its coonskin hat.

"I think our strength is balance," Smith said. "We have a good passing game and a good running game. But we have yet to put together a complete game. Whenever we decide to put together a complete game, we'll be a great offense.

"That inconsistency is something we have to look into. Sometimes we come out and light it up, while sometimes we come out and look flat. You don't want that to happen."

It seems pretty clear that West Virginia needs Smith to play well for the offense to succeed, which is an awful lot to put on a young quarterback. On Friday, the Mountaineers will play at Connecticut, a team that has given up a bunch of big plays this season and has historically had a tough time defending West Virginia's speed.

Could this be a breakout game for the offense?

"I don't think we have the right to even think like that," Smith said. "We've left a lot of points on the board ourselves. We've got to focus on executing."