Geno Smith played two mediocre games in 2012, and if that doesn't sound like a once-upon-a-time Heisman frontrunner that plummeted off the national radar, then it's because your expectations of his shortcomings are far too great.
It's a theme for the West Virginia star, who battled the weight of anticipation throughout the season in Morgantown, carrying a defenseless team to the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City largely on the proficiency of his accurate arm. A 7-6 record doesn't earn a senior quarterback his second straight BCS bowl berth, but, then again, neither does the 112th-ranked scoring defense in the country.
That may not have been the story you were told, though.
You were told opposing defensive coordinators had finally figured out Dana Holgorsen's offense. You were told Johnny Manziel and the next class of dual threat-type quarterbacks were the future to Smith's past. Last season's Orange Bowl was ancient history, and these were Smith's true colors — the dreaded "system quarterback" label.
Here are the facts: Sixth in total offense nationally; most passing touchdowns (40); seven 300-yard passing games; a 17:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio versus ranked opponents; the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.
Smith was not a classic letdown, he was the one let down.
Ever since January's Orange Bowl against Clemson, when Holgorsen's hurry-up offense hit on all cylinders against a quality opponent and Smith tossed for 407 yards and six touchdowns, the prolific-senior-QB-for-Heisman campaign hype went into overdrive. He was returning his top targets (Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin) and primed to tear up the soft underbelly of Big 12 defenses. And after what he did to then-No. 25 Baylor and then-No. 11 Texas in consecutive weekends — a jaw-dropping 914 yards and 12 touchdowns — the one-track mind of prognosticators focused in on football's new favorite artist. Every national publication had a Geno story to tell. The fact that his defense, at that point, was allowing 35 points per game was thought to be a minor obstacle.
But it wasn't.
It would get much worse, too, as the competition level stiffened.
After starting 5-0, West Virginia lost five straight games as the Mountaineers allowed 49, 55, 39 (double overtime to TCU), 55 and 50 points, respectively. Now, Smith was not above reproach in said contests. Those two mediocre games of his — Texas Tech and Kansas State — came during this abysmal stretch for Holgorsen's team.
However, Smith was never the reason for West Virginia's fall from national grace. In fact, of the 10 top-rated passers in the country, Smith's defense is the only unit to finish in the bottom 20 for scoring defense. In other words, among his elite peers, Geno Smith was faced with the tallest task — AJ McCarron (Alabama), Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville) and Tajh Boyd (Clemson) did not enter each game knowing they needed to put up at least 38 points to have a chance at winning.
"I'm not going to sit here and point fingers at anybody else. I'm the leader of this team and I'm the leader of the offense. As an offense we didn't do enough. If [our opponent] scores points, so what? We have to go out there and match it. We can't worry about the defense. We have to worry about ourselves.''
That was Smith's reaction after the Kansas State game in which he played his worst game of the season and his defense gave up 55 points to eventual Heisman finalist Collin Klein's offense. That was his approach all season. If West Virginia came up short, it was on his shoulders. Eventually, that trickled into widespread opinion: Smith was no longer doing enough to overshadow his defense's ineptitude.
And yes, West Virginia scored far more points in its five-game, undefeated start than it did in its 2-5 finish, but that's also a factor of the defense as well. Much in the same way that tackle totals can be deceiving for defensive players — What's better for a defense: Star Defender A registering one tackle on a three-and-out or Star Defender B registering seven tackles on a 93-yard drive? — a porous defense that cannot generate stops limits its offense's potential opportunities. For an up-tempo, quick-strike offense like Holgorsen's, the more chances the better. Not coincidentally, in three of its five losses, West Virginia was dominated in time of possession.
And even so, Smith finished with 4,004 yards passing, 40 touchdowns and a top-10 offense.
Is that the same guy who fell off the Heisman map because he couldn't handle the pressure of top competition?
"If he thinks all this falls on his shoulders," Holgorsen said in a press conference earlier in the season, "he's sadly mistaken."
Perhaps the worst thing Smith did in 2012 was set the bar too high — after routing Clemson in a BCS bowl, his video game numbers through the early part of the season set a national expectation. When he fell short of his record-setting quarterback status for two games, the team's wheels fell off completely, partially due to West Virginia's relevance in terms of TV markets and partially due to that system quarterback label.
So now Smith enters this Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse for one final collegiate game before heading into the NFL Draft. Given his numbers and accuracy, many draft pundits project him to be the No. 1 signal caller off the board, even higher than fellow seniors Matt Barkley and Tyler Wilson. Some are calling him the top overall pick. Kansas City Chiefs' fan sites (the league's worst team) have openly petitioned for his services.
Not everyone is sleeping on Geno Smith — just those not paying attention.