Chief among his moments of development and self-discovery, but by no means chief among Geno Smith’s happiest, stands the 2011 loss to Syracuse — a game beaten to death this month because Smith was nearly beaten to death in it.
Syracuse clubbed West Virginia 49-23 in Week 7 last season, a loss that 14 months later both stings and strengthens Smith. As both teams reunited for Wednesday night’s Pinstripe Bowl media prelude at Yankee Stadium, the Orange’s 26-point beatdown was revisited from countless angles.
The angle Smith most vividly recalled was looking up at the Carrier Dome roof, from his backside. Sacked four times and hurried into two interceptions, he exited the loss realizing his need to improve at deciphering opposing blitzers.
“That was actually the first time in this offense that a team had done that to me,” Smith said. “They just blitzed nonstop, no rhyme or reason for it.
“They’d send five guys off one side at times. It’s really unsound football, but it’s the way they play.”
If Smith sounded like he was belittling the nonconventional schemes deployed by Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, well, just listen to what Syracuse’s offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said: “Coach Shafer’s defense that we go against in practice, it’s insane. That’s probably the most insane defense ever.”
And from that insanity, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen felt like Smith emerged more shrewd. Bruised, but shrewd.
“We didn’t play well when we went up there and that was the turning point with Geno,” Holgorsen said. “Their scheme got us a little bit. We’ll see how much improvement we made on specific looks.
“They’re very much a dial-up-a-defense kind of team, so you don’t know what you’re going to get. Seventeen of the first 18 blitzes last year were different, so we have to identify that and get in the right play. Smith) has matured a bunch, and from a scheme standpoint, he is going to be able to see that and make some pretty good checks.”
Shafer said Smith’s production this season proves Syracuse is about to face a quarterback much-enhanced from that October night in 2011.
“He’s really grown the last two years as a football player — you can see it on tape,” Shafer said. “His decision-making is great. I mean, a 40-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio is unheard of.
“They make great plays even when they’re covered. Geno makes throws into tight windows, and he’s got a hell of an arm.”
And one hell of a memory.
“I think I have 20-something picks in my career and five of them are against Syracuse,” Smith said. “And I don’t like that, because I usually don’t turn the ball over.”
One of Smith’s All-American targets, Stedman Bailey, has announced he’ll enter the NFL draft after his junior season. But Bailey brandished his soft-spoken cockiness Wednesday by re-emphasizing how much he wants — and expects —to close his college career by beating Syracuse.
“It will be pretty good to go out and get some revenge and get a win,” he said.
“Just based on the fact that we lost to these guys for two years in a row, I don’t think it will be any better feeling than to get this win against these guys.”