LANDOVER, Md. — As fun as they are to watch, Geno Smith and his West Virginia receivers don’t play Sam Huff football.
Too much finesse. Too many yards. Too many points.
It was only appropriate, therefore, that on the day the Mountaineers honored their legendary linebacker, the less-heralded defense had a couple of moments that no doubt did him proud.
Give Smith his well-deserved accolades for his five touchdown passes Saturday in the No. 9 Mountaineers’ 42-12 win over James Madison, but don’t fault the defense if it boasts a bit about a couple of goal line stands that might have looked right at home in the Huff days of the 1960s.
“I bet you he was pretty excited, wasn’t he?” West Virginia defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. “I hope so. I’d like to talk to him about it. … What they did there, they showed like they’re growing up.”
With the Mountaineers playing at the Washington Redskins stadium — they need to maintain an East Coast profile for recruiting now that they’ve moved to the Big 12 — former Redskins Hall of Fame linebacker Huff served as the honorary captain and soaked up the cheers as he held up his long-retired No. 75 jersey during the quarter break in the first half.
By then, Smith had already staked West Virginia (2-0) to a 21-0 lead. He went to complete 34 of 39 passes for 411 yards, moving past Marc Bulger (8,153) to set the school record for career yards passing (8,191).
Smith’s favorite targets, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, both had 100 yards receiving by halftime. Bailey finished with 173 yards on 13 catches and three touchdowns, while Austin had 113 yards on 11 receptions and one score for the Mountaineers, who piled up 569 yards and improved to 13-0 all-time against FCS schools.
What could Smith have done better? Not much.
“I had five incompletions,” the quarterback said. “I could’ve completed all five of those.”
He added that he could have made better decisions when the offense hit a lull in the third quarter, but that’s when the defense came through, stopping James Madison on four running plays after the Dukes had first-and-goal at the 3, then coming up with a third-down interception in the end zone after a first-and-goal at the 9.
“The two goal line stands were very impressive,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “As a team we overcame adversity there in the third quarter. We’ve got to get used to that.”
They won’t have much if Smith keeps playing like this, working the no-huddle attack with creative tosses, slip screens and scrambles. It was a thing of beauty when he ignored the rusher in his face and draped a pass onto Austin’s shoulder for a 24-yard gain in the second quarter.
Much of the time, however, the quarterback found receivers so open that his passes became easy target practice, including his 4-yard touchdown throw to Dante Campbell for the redshirt freshman’s first collegiate catch.
Stedman’s touchdown catches came in various shapes and sizes — a 9-yarder on a screen, a 3-yarder on a fade in which no one covered him, and a 30-yarder that Smith lobbed perfectly into a seam between two defensive backs down the sideline.
The Mountaineers have scored 181 points in their past three games — including 70 in last season’s Orange Bowl and 69 in their opener against Marshall.
The Dukes (2-1), remembered for stunning then-No. 13 Virginia Tech two years ago, tried just about everything, but they were never in this one.
“They’ve shown potential to upset people,” Holgorsen said. “I give our guys credit for not falling into that trap.”
James Madison got called for 12 men on the field twice on defense in the first quarter, and then successfully converted a fourth-and-1 at their own 34 on the first play of the second quarter — a ploy that managed to keep the Mountaineers’ offense off the field for a least a couple of extra minutes.
“We didn’t come out of the chute at all,” James Madison coach Mickey Matthews said. “I can’t show you why. We didn’t show a lot of poise.”
The Dukes were also missing leading rusher Dae’Quan Scott, who injured an ankle last week. Then they lost Daniel Brown to a torn ACL in his right knee on the first offensive play, defensive tackle Jordan Stanton to a concussion, and safety Titus Till to an ankle injury.
James Madison’s fans roared when their team finally forced West Virginia to punt late in the first half, and again when the Mountaineers’ Shawne Alston was tackled for a safety in the third quarter — although the two points were a bittersweet consolation prize that came after the offense had been halted by the Huff-like stop at the 1.
“The goal line stands by them in the third quarter,” Matthews said, “certainly kept it out of reach.”