TAMPA, Fla. - As late Thursday turned into early Friday, an exhausted Geno Smith stood outside West Virginia's locker room in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium reminiscing.
Smith and Stedman Bailey have been playing catch for what now amounts to nearly half their lives. They've taken it from playgrounds and empty fields to Miramar High School and, lately, to West Virginia. And the more they do it, the better they become at it.
"We've been doing that since high school,'' Smith said. "It's just like sandlot football in those situations.''
The two will continue to do it, too. They will do it again in a few weeks or a month, probably near their Miami area homes in the Orange Bowl or at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. It's likely to be the former if Cincinnati beats Connecticut today and hands WVU a BCS bowl berth. If not, chances are it will be the latter.
It's going to be a while, though, before they hook up on a pass and catch as significant as the one they made on the next-to-last play from scrimmage Thursday night. Bailey made a diving catch of a 26-yard Smith pass on a fourth-down play with six seconds to play, setting up Tyler Bitancurt's field goal on the last play to beat South Florida 30-27.
"He made a great catch,'' Smith said. "That's what he does.''
Here's the thing, though: For most of the night, Smith and Bailey and the entire West Virginia offense were doing nothing even mildly reminiscent of what they usually do. Dana Holgorsen's high-powered offense was stuck not even in neutral, but often in reverse. The Mountaineers had surrendered a game-long lead to fall behind 27-20 with nine minutes to play. Smith had even committed the ultimate sin in throwing a pick six to USF's JaQuez Jenkins for the Bulls' go-ahead score.
The WVU offense had generated all of two field goals to that point, and even they were gimmes - a negative-yardage possession after a Willie Milhouse blocked punt for one and a mere 41-yard drive for the other.
"There were a lot of times out there where I didn't feel real confident in what we were calling,'' Holgorsen said of his sputtering offense. "But you can't quit. You've just got to keep going.''
Well, it got going in the final nine minutes, but even that was a struggle. First there was an 11-play, 77-yard drive to tie the game on Dustin Garrison's 5-yard run with 5:09 left. But even on that possession the Mountaineers had to convert a fourth-and-1 and a third-and-16. The latter was accomplished only because of a personal-foul penalty on USF.
And then came the final drive, which wasn't really much of a drive at all. The offense had the ball only because Najee Goode stripped USF quarterback B.J. Daniels of the ball with 3:02 to play when the Bulls were already in 45-yard field goal range. After two first downs moved the ball to the South Florida 42, West Virginia started going backward when Smith was sacked for the only time of the night. He made up for it with a pass to Bailey that got the yards back, but two plays later it was still fourth-and-10 at the 42 - a 59-yard field goal - and just 13 seconds remained.
As it turned out, though, things were just getting interesting. After the officials went to video and erased a 5-yard illegal-substitution penalty against USF, West Virginia needed not only to get a first down, but gain enough yardage to get into Bitancurt's range, and do so either with a sideline pass to stop the clock - WVU was out of timeouts - or in the middle of the field quickly enough to race down, line up and spike the ball.
As they have done so many times this season, Smith and Bailey made the play, with Smith extending himself to make the catch in front of cornerback Quenton Washington at the 16.
"I give big ups to Stedman,'' Goode said. "He had a deep-thigh bruise during the week, but his hands are like gold.''
"Geno called the play,'' Holgorsen said. "Obviously he and Stedman have a pretty good rapport.''
There was just one problem. After Bailey made the catch he stayed on the ground either exhausted or hurt (he wasn't available afterward to say which). The clock was stopped with six seconds remaining to move the chains, but had Bailey remained on the ground the officials would have stepped in. If a team without timeouts suffers an injury in the final moments of a game, by rule 10 seconds are run off the clock. That would have meant the catch was for naught and the game would have gone to overtime.