- Ryan Hockensmith
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- He might stay. He might go. But on this night, Alex Smith just went.
Out of the shotgun. Under center. Shovel passes. Screen passes. Long passes. Short passes. And if Pittsburgh had over the river and through the woods covered, the Utah quarterback took off and ran with the ball. He finished 29-of-37 for 328 yards and four touchdowns, and tormented the Panthers defense with 68 yards rushing, too.
No matter what the junior decides about the NFL, Smith can bank the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl as an all-time performance. The Heisman finalist looked like he should have won the bronze, Utah looked like it could score on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Smith looks like he has a tough call to make. Stay at Utah, minus his head coach, Urban Meyer, and 18 seniors. Or go play on Sundays. He appeared up to either challenge in Tempe Saturday night. "Alex did what he normally does," Ute wide receiver Paris Warren said. "He was a Heisman Trophy candidate."
Minutes after the game ended, Smith stood on a makeshift podium to accept co-offensive player of the game alongside Warren (15 catches, 198 yards and two touchdowns). In the stands in front of him, the swarm of red-draped Utes fans that swallowed Sun Devil Stadium seats like fire ants on a half-eaten Snickers bar voiced its opinion. "One more year! One more year!" they screamed.
"Uh, I don't know what to think," he told the crowd.
Neither did the Pittsburgh defense. The Panthers' scout team did all it could for the last month to prepare them for Utah's barrage of spread formations and option runs out of the shotgun. They could have had another month and it wouldn't have mattered. Every surprise jab they threw at Smith, he countered with roundhouses. "I don't know what he was doing at the line of scrimmage," All-Big East defensive tackle Vince Crochunis said. "But he made all the right checks. He read our defense really well and just always seemed to find an opening."
And at the game's most pivotal point, Smith even pulled off a daring hook-and-ladder pass in the third quarter. The Utes had tried the play all week in practice, with disastrous results. "It never worked," Smith said. "It wasn't just bad, either. It was awful."
But after Pittsburgh scored its only touchdown of the night to narrow Utah's lead to 28-7, Smith made it work in the game. He drilled Steve Savoy on the left flank, who turned and flipped the ball back to Warren. With a sprinting start, the senior wideout hit the sideline and zipped 18 yards to make it 35-7. Game, set career?
Smith says he'll decide in the next week or so what he'll do. He's said he'll meet in the next few days with his family, including his uncle, Michigan State coach John L. Smith, and Florida-bound Meyer for their advice. They've watched a gangly kid, whose own father advised him in high school to stick to cross country, go from the worst quarterback on the Utes roster ("He was third-string, and he earned it," Meyer says of Smith's first spring in Salt Lake City) go 22-1 and bust Utah into the BCS.
"If he's going to be a first-rounder, he should go. If he's not a first-rounder for sure, he should stay," Meyer said after the game. "I love Alex Smith. I think he's the best quarterback in college football right now. I support him whatever he decides."
If the Fiesta Bowl is any indication, Smith will make the right read.
Ryan Hockensmith is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With Alex Smith's future undecided, the Utah quarterback made the most of his present.