Oct. 6 was the date of West Virginia’s last win before the Mountaineers embarked on a five-game losing streak. Trailing Iowa State in the fourth quarter on Friday, Tavon Austin made every effort to ensure West Virginia would not go oh-for in November. The Mountaineer speed demon receiver broke off a 75-yard touchdown on a short pass from Geno Smith, then punched in a two-point conversion that sealed a bowl game.
West Virginia is a reminder of how fickle this game can be. One week, you’re on top of the world. Knee-jerk reactionaries seek to declare national champions and Heisman Trophy winners in September, but sentiment cools with the late autumn temperatures when teams and players fail to maintain
The same pundits who heaped adulation on Smith, Austin and Stedman Bailey laugh it off, but the truth is the Mountaineer trio has continued to produce at elite levels.
Austin ended Friday’s win with 12 touchdown receptions, and 106 catches for 1149 yards to go with 521 yards rushing. Bailey has 95 catches, including an astounding 21 for scores to lead the nation. Smith threw touchdowns and had yet another performance without an interception. He’s thrown just five all year in 468 attempts; in other words, Smith has thrown a pick once every 93 times he passes.
Two poor offensive outings against Texas Tech and Kansas State were enough to relegate West Virginia to distant memory. But Smith has had an incredible season. Bailey has had an incredible season. Austin was a hero on Friday, one week after putting on one of the most impressive individual performances of the entire campaign when he rushed for 344 yards against Oklahoma. That West Virginia dropped its decision to the Sooners was no fault of Austin, Smith or Bailey. The same can be said for another one-point loss to TCU.
Had the Mountaineers scored four more points this season — two in each of those games — would Smith still be in the Heisman race with the exact same numbers? He’s completed around 70 percent of his passes and has 37 touchdowns. What about the versatile Austin, or Bailey and his nation-leading output for touchdown receptions?
Smith came into the Mountaineers’ Big 12 contest against Iowa State ranked behind only Marshall’s Rakeem Cato for completions. The Thundering Herd quarterback ends the season with 37 touchdowns after throwing five in today’s loss at East Carolina.
Marshall needed a win to return to the postseason. The Herd won last year’s Beef-o-Bradys Bowl with Cato behind center. He was cruising in a showdown reminiscent of the Marshall-East Carolina 2001 GMAC Bowl, when Byron Leftwich and David Gerrard went back-and-forth in a double overtime, 64-61 shootout.
This season’s installment fell a tad short of the combined 125 points scored that December day, but just barely. ECU capped off its 8-4 season with a 65-59 win, once again in two overtimes.
Things may have gone differently for Marshall had Cato not come out with an injury. As it stands, he ends the season as the nation’s most prolific passer, a distinction overlooked given the Herd’s sub-par record. Never mind that five of Marshall’s seven losses were in games when the Herd scored at least 31 points.
Until quarterbacks start playing linebacker like at some high school levels, the individual contributions of players like Smith and Cato cannot be downplayed because of inadequacy on the defensive end. And yet, they are.