Breakthrough

Reserve defensive back Thandi Smith wasn't even supposed to get close the ball, but his big rejection of Brendan Carney's punt was the second of two big blocks for the Mountaineers against the vaunted Orange kicking game.

"I was really just supposed to make sure the punter kicked the ball," Smith said after he ran untouched through the put protection team to snuff Carney's first attempt of the contest. "[My eyes] got real big. I don't know what they were doing. Initially, I guess they just relaxed. No one got a hand on me."

Smith, a senior walkon from Youngstown, Ohio, is a special teams stalwart who also has gotten some time in West Virginia's third-down defensive packages. His biggest contributions to the WVU program, however, have come on special teams, and none have been more important than his outstanding effort against Syracuse.

The block had a strange look from the outset. Syracuse lined up in a spread punt formation, with the emphasis on spread. The splits between the Cuse linemen were about three times normal size, and while that helps them get downfield to cover the kick, it also provides some ready made gaps for rushers to exploit. Three personal protectors are aligned in front of the punter to clean up rushers that get through the front line, but on this play those players appeared to be asleep at the switch.

"It's very unconventional," Smith said of the Syracuse spread punt. "We switched up our scheme against it. I'm usually the end man on the line, but we put our speed guys on the inside. I was the third man in, and just went in there and got it."

Making the achievement all the more amazing was the fact that WVU had called for a return, not a block, on the play. West Virginia faked as if it were going for the block, but then backed most of their punt return team off the line in order to set up the return. Smith was the sole player who put on a serious rush, and somehow he snaked through eight opponents to get to the kick.

"My assignment on every punt block is to just make sure the ball gets kicked," Smith said. "I try to block it if I can, but my first assignment is to make sure the punter kicks the ball."

In this case, however, Smith made sure the punter didn't kick the ball. After blowing through a gap in the front wall, the junior defensive back ran right by all three personal protectors to take the kick off the foot of Carney, who apparently never saw the blue-clad bullet approaching him. And although WVU wasn't able to turn the block into points, it solidified the dominance that the Mountaineer defense showed in the opening quarter. WVU hard previously rejected a Collin Barber field goal attempt, and later turned a muffed punt into a touchdown, which gave them a commanding 17-0 lead at the half.


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