The Big 3
By John Antonik
The Big 3
Believe it or not, Geno Smith thought he left yards out on the football field last year. That's really hard to imagine, considering he passed for more than 4,300 yards with more than 2,400 of those going to West Virginia's dynamic pass-catching tandem of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
And as hard as it is to imagine Smith doing more, what is even more difficult to comprehend is just how many yards Geno thought he missed out on.
A couple hundred?
Try two grand.
"Last year, I know for a fact that I left a couple thousand yards out there with just bad reads and bad throws," Smith said last spring. "My deep ball wasn't on and there were a number of things we didn't do that we were capable of, but I definitely think we're going to improve."
Considering West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen's track record for putting up mind-numbing offensive numbers, especially for players in year two of his system, anything is possible - and just about anything seems possible for a Mountaineer football team that heads into the 2012 season possessing three of the best weapons in all of college football.
A defense can try and take away Bailey down the field and it can try and take away Austin working the hash marks. It can even try and bring the house and pressure Smith, but in order to do all three a defense is going to need about 15 or 16 guys on the football field at the same time to accomplish that. Unfortunately, they can only use 11.
"You can't focus on one guy," admitted offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. "I was talking to the defensive coaches (after one practice last spring) about Tavon. They want to account two people for him every snap but when you do that you've only got so many of them over there and you've got to cover up everything. If people are going to do that then Stedman can have a big day."
And Bailey certainly had plenty of those last year. He put up 178 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a blowout victory over Connecticut, 130 yards and a TD at Syracuse and more than 100 yards receiving in five other games to finish the year with 72 catches for 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even when the game plan was to try and take away Bailey's vertical game like Pitt tried to do, he still managed to make plays like his big 63-yard touchdown grab (see graphic in this story) when he also managed to use a little South Florida moxie to bounce away from a Panther defender and jog the remaining 20 yards into the end zone.
WVU co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who coordinated Pitt’s defense last year, explained how he tried to slow the Mountaineers down.
"The one thing we tried to do was to keep from trying to give up the cheap home run," he said. "The issue you have is with Tavon he's moving across the field at a high rate of speed and you get people trying to play top-down on him. Well, now all of a sudden you do what? You soften yourself vertically and all of a sudden there goes No. 3 (Bailey) running right past you."
On the other hand, when you pay too much attention to the deep ball and don't give Austin enough TLC, the Orange Bowl happens.
What Austin did to Clemson - and what West Virginia did to the entire Tiger defense in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl - still has everyone scratching their heads. The Mountaineers' 70-33 victory was the biggest rout since the U.S. Marines faced Grenada.
Even the French in '40 put up a better fight than the Tigers did in Miami, the 2-to-1 advantage in Clemson orange inside Sun Life Stadium at kickoff was later replaced by the orange of empty seats when the lights were turned back on after the halftime performance from the musical act Train.
Smith earned game MVP honors for his 407-yard, six-touchdown passing performance, but it was Austin who wowed the crowd with 12 catches for 123 yards and four scores. The buzz going into the game was all about Clemson's freshman All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins. But it was Austin who everyone was talking about afterward.
In the days leading up to the game, Tavon thought he wasn't getting the respect he deserved and he set out to open people's eyes, even though he was approaching 100 catches and already had more than 1,000 yards receiving during the regular season. Things worked out so well for him in the Orange Bowl that Austin figures he might as well just keep carrying that chip on his shoulder right into this fall.
"As far as that game, things have probably changed a little bit, but at the end of the day it will probably be the same thing," he said. "I've just got to come in day by day and week in and week out and keep proving them wrong."
Holgorsen certainly has no problem with that. He asked Austin before the start of spring practice if he could turn on the jets all of the time instead of just when he has the football in his hands. A Tavon Austin with the afterburners constantly running can take a pretty fast West Virginia offense and make it warp speed.
"One of the deals that we were talking about with him is that he's fast 15 percent of the time when the ball is in his hands, and not fast when the ball's not in his hands," explained Holgorsen. "Now he's playing fast all the time. He looks like a totally different guy, which is obviously very exciting."
Defensive back Brodrick Jenkins, who gets to spend a couple hours a day chasing Austin during practice, said sticking with Tavon is like eating soup with a fork.
"Ask Clemson. Ask USF," he said, shaking his head. "It's hard, man. I think people don't always understand that and give him the recognition that he needs. Players like Tavon and Stedman - and even getting reps from Geno - I feel like me going against them every day means I can go against anybody in the country."
"Coming from Florida, I've seen the best of the best and (Tavon) has something that no one else has," added Smith.
That seems to be the general consensus among all of his teammates.
Childhood buddies Smith and Bailey have played so long together that they can almost communicate telepathically out on the football field. Now, Smith and Austin are getting that way, too.
"They were doing signals (during one spring practice) that I had no idea what they were calling," said quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital. "I had a sense of what they were doing, but they somehow made it work and once you get to that level, that's where you need to be at."
"Me and Stedman have always had that relationship on the field," Smith mentioned. "I am developing it with Tavon now, too."
Bailey sees the two playing off each other even more this fall. They have a better understanding of the offense and the ability now to line up in many different formations, including some bunch-sets where they are on the same side of the field.
"All the things we did last year were great, but this is a new year and we're looking to better at everything," said Bailey. "We just want to get better at everything we can possibly get better at."
Spavital can envision an improved West Virginia offense even with a little less from Austin. He explains.
"He's seeing every look imaginable," said Spavital. "He understands how defenses work, how they operate and what they're trying to do and the reasoning why defenses are doing this to him because ... And he understands that he's taking people out of the play for us to have success. He's going to keep evolving as he sees more things."
Patterson, whose defense was able to limit West Virginia to less than 400 total yards and 21 points in last year's Panther loss to the Mountaineers in Morgantown, is a believer.
"No. 1, starting with Geno, he throws the ball so effectively because he has such a strong arm and the receivers do a great job - probably better than anybody I've ever been around at coming back to the ball - they will be in a 20-yard break and they're catching the ball 12 yards from the line of scrimmage," he said.
"Secondly, you've got Sted who can stretch you vertically and then you have Tavon who is moving across the field horizontally, so, now you've got a guy with a strong arm who can stretch the field vertically with a vertical threat; then, you've got a guy who can take a zero or negative-yardage route and turn it into a 10-yard gain in the blink of an eye. That's the problem you have in defending this offense."
In all likelihood, what happens behind those guys in the backfield will determine how far this offense can ultimately take the Mountaineers in 2012.
"If you can incorporate a strong running game with what we can do throwing the ball, it makes this offense really tough to defend," Patterson concluded.
If West Virginia can find a reliable ground game to go with what it already has with Geno, Stedman and Tavon in the passing game, then it won't really matter how many yards Smith leaves out on the football field this fall.
John Antonik is the Director of New Media for the West Virginia University Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Follow John on Twitter @JohnAntonik and be sure to check out his new book Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History, available in bookstores this fall.