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Wayback Wednesday: Geno Proves His Mettle and The Mountaineers Avoid an Upset

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The date is September 10, 2010. The location is Joan C. Edwards Stadium, home of the Marshall Thundering Herd, in Huntington, WV. The era of Rich Rodriguez has nearly faded from WVU with seniors Noel Devine and Jock Sanders serving as the last bastions of the most recent golden years of Mountaineer football. Bill Stewart is in his third and final season as the head man on the sidelines. His hand-selected quarterback is set to make his second start, the first being an easy win over then-FCS opponent Coastal Carolina. That inexperienced starter is a true sophomore from Miramar, Florida whose full name is Eugene Cyril Smith III, but you can call him “Geno”.

The Herd came flying out of the gate in this one with quarterback Brian Anderson capping off an eighty yard drive with an eight yard scoring toss to Antavious Wilson,  set up by Martin Ward’s fifty-five yard run to the Mountaineer twelve. A short kickoff was brought out to the WVU forty where Smith and the offense began their first drive. A methodical attack took the Mountaineers deep into Marshall territory but a touchdown was not in the cards as a 34-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal got WVU on the board.

Marshall punted on the ensuing drive and WVU took over, driving down inside the Marshall ten yard line where the offense stalled, resulting in a turnover on downs. Anderson got the ball back but a false start penalty backed the Herd offense up to their own four. However, South Charleston native Aaron Dobson found a hole in the defense and Anderson hit him for a demoralizing ninety-six yard touchdown to put the hosts up 14-3. The two rivals would then trade punts for the rest of the half and the Mountaineers went into the locker room trailing for the first time all season.

Getting the ball to start the second half, the WVU offense was looking to make an impact after a mediocre first half showing. That would not come to pass however, as Devine fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and Anderson led his offense back out. Marshall went three and out so Smith had another shot to get his team in the end zone for the first time. Another long drive would come up short, finishing with Bitancurt hitting from 33 yards. This was followed by three straight punts before WVU got the ball back, down 14-6. Bitancurt was unable to stay perfect on the day, getting his 45 yard attempt blocked to set up a seven play drive for Marshall that was capped off by the second TD for the Anderson-Wilson connection. The Mountaineers trailed 21-6 with 14:55 to play in the fourth. Both teams went three and out on their next drives, followed by Vinny Curry forcing a sack fumble on Smith to give the Herd the ball back, this time on the WVU sixteen yard line. With Marshall looking to put the game on ice, things finally bounced in the Mountaineers’ favor. Marshall running back Tron Martinez took a handoff on first and goal from the six but was held up at the line as defensive end Jorge Wright knocked the ball free. WVU recovered and Smith led his charges back onto the field with 96 yards ahead of them and a fifteen point deficit to erase in 8:20.

A twenty-six yard strike to Sanders got WVU out from under the shadow of their own goal posts before the offense got moving for the first time all night. Two plays later, Smith broke loose on a seventeen yard scramble which he followed up with back to back completions to tight end Will Johnson and Miramar teammate Stedman Bailey of sixteen and thirty yards respectively to put WVU on the Marshall eight. Three snaps later, Devine punched it in from four yards out and Bitancurt’s extra point cut the Herd lead to eight.

Now with just under five minutes to play, Ward broke loose once again for twenty-eight yards, but the Mountaineer defense held on three straight run plays after that. Kace Whitehead came on to punt and the native of Maryville, Tennessee let loose a beauty that was downed at the West Virginia two. With 2:57 left on the clock, a sophomore quarterback in his second career start had ninety-eight yards to go to tie the game against an in-state rival. You could tell that things were a little tense.

As the clock ticked down, Smith showed his mettle, going 10/13 for seventy-five yards along with a key twenty yard scramble. With twelve seconds on the clock, Smith dropped back and was flushed out of the pocket. Running to his right he found Johnson wide open in the back right corner of the end zone and the big tight end stretched high over his head to haul in the score. Still trailing 21-19, the Mountaineers needed a two-point conversion to push the game into overtime. This time it was the diminutive Sanders finding a gap in the Marshall defense and Smith lofted the ball to the back of the end zone into his waiting arms.

The Mountaineers were in the midst of one of the greatest comebacks in school history. They just hadn’t completed it yet. Overtime opened and WVU received the ball to start the extra frame. On first down, Smith was sacked for a loss of nine yards, nearly losing a fumble in the process. However, the offense got on track but were unable to punch it into the end zone. A chip shot by Bitancurt put WVU back on top and the defense came out to try to win the game. On the first play, Andre Booker was dropped for a loss of eight but Anderson got that back and more with an eleven yard hook up with Dobson. However, his third and seven pass fell harmlessly to the turf, requiring Tyler Warner, a junior from Parkersburg, to attempt to push the game to a second overtime. The ball left his foot and moments later he raised his hands to his helmet in disbelief as the kick missed to the right by a matter of a few inches. The twenty-third ranked Mountaineers had escaped.

The impact that this game had was much larger than it appeared on the surface. This was the closest the Herd ever came to knocking off WVU. Geno Smith proved that he was worthy of carrying the program into the future, going 32/45 for 316 yards and the game-tying score. Sophomore Tavon Austin and freshman Stedman Bailey combined for 14 catches and 157 yards through the air, showing that Smith would have quality targets for years to come. What seemed to just be an early season tune-up against a team that had never defeated WVU turned out to be the coming out party for one of the greatest players in school history and one of the most impressive comebacks the Mountaineers have ever pulled off.

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