By Dave Morrison
Register-Herald Sports Writer
If anyone knows how fickle fans can be, it’s West Virginia punter Corey Smith.
But the senior understands it.
So when he was cheered after his stellar, game-saving performance Friday night in West Virginia’s 21-20 Backyard Brawl win over Pitt, he took it for what it was.
“Anything negative anybody said, anything positive anybody said, I used it as motivation,” says Smith. “I just try to go out with the mind-set that yes, (fans) want good kicks and that’s why I’m here. I’m supposed to perform like that every week.”
Smith punted four times Friday night, averaging 57.2 yards, including a game-saving 60-yarder with 1:56 left.
He replaced Michael Molinari, who punted the first four times Friday, but averaged just 34.8 per kick, including a 22-yarder that led directly to a Pitt touchdown.
Ironically, the job was Smith’s until the Bowling Green game, when Molinari replaced him in much the same way.
“I think everyone as kickers, you’re going to go through a bad game and it’s going to get a lot of publicity and it’s not going to be good,” says Smith. “You’ve just got to keep your head up. Everyone goes through it. It’s like a rite of passage. Everyone’s going to have a bad game, it’s just how you respond to it.”
And like Molinari — who is Smith’s roommate — a few weeks ago, it was Smith’s turn to respond Friday.
His first punt traveled 62 yards, forcing Pitt’s return man to retreat 20 yards to retrieve the boot.
Those boos he heard at Milan Puskar Stadium when he was struggling, quickly turned to cheers.
But he saved his best for late in the game.
Backed up in the shadow of its own goal post, West Virginia was unable to get a first down to kill the clock, clinging to a 21-20 lead.
With two minutes left, and a potential Big East title hanging in the balance, Smith was called on to save the day.
Any type of shanked or short kick would give Pitt prime field position for a potential game-winning field goal.
And he did just that, uncorking a 60-yard punt that reversed field position, putting Pitt at its own 26.
Pitt never got untracked, as quarterback Tino Sunseri was sacked four times on the last series.
“I trust my leg, I know what I’ve done a million times,” said Smith. “It’s not went well for me (in the past), but I had to block that out of my mind.”
Smith feels for Molinari, a guy he considers a friend. That’s why he offered pointers and answered questions while he was on his self-induced hiatus to the bench the last five-plus games.
“We have a great relationship with each other,” says Smith. “We joke around, we room together and I’m happy for him. I help him out if I see something. Even tonight, I’m trying to help him out because we both went through the same thing.”
Smith is well aware that success, as a kicker, is a fleeting thing. Just as soon as he is in, he could come out. The Mountaineers wrap up the regular-season Thursday at 8 p.m. at South Florida and he knows what he has to do.
“I’ve just got to make sure I’m consistent next week,” he says. “That’s the biggest key. If I don’t do anything next week, then it’s kind of irrelevant.”