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Mr. Third Down (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday January 3, 2006 12:11AM; Updated: Tuesday January 3, 2006 12:55PM
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Tressel was referring to those aforementioned big gainers, but he could easily have been alluding to Smith's third-down genius. Late in the game, after the Irish had clawed back from a 27-13 deficit to make it 27-20, the momentum seemed to be theirs again for the first time since they had led 7-0. A mishandled kickoff left Ohio State with the ball on its 15. There was still 5:22 on the clock.

On first down, a Pittman run was stuffed for a gain of one.

On second down, Smith's pass was batted down by Notre Dame's Derek Landri.

Third down, with about 4:30 left to play. Smith rolls out right, stops, and hits Pittman on a swing pass right for 10 yards.

The Irish defense, resilient if also feckless (allowing a season-high 617 yards), came back stronger on the next series of downs. Pittman was stopped after a one-yard gain and Smith, on a designed keeper, lost three yards. The Buckeyes were looking at third-and-11, and still with more than three minutes left.

Smith dropped back to pass, but was wrapped up in the pocket by Notre Dame defensive end Victor Abiamiri. Smith, listed at 6-1 but who's more like 5-11 (and very strong), eluded Abiamiri, spun 360 degrees, rolled right and hit Anthony Gonzalez with a 15-yard stake through the heart.

On the very next play, Pittman rumbled through an abject Irish defense for the game-clinching score. Ohio State 34, Notre Dame 20.

That Smith, whose two most prolific passing games have come in his past two starts, did not start in Ohio State's 25-22 loss to Texas last September now seems shocking. He has beaten Michigan (300 yards) and Notre Dame (342 yards) and entered Sun Devil Stadium as the seventh-rated passer in the nation. Yet Notre Dame's No. 10, Brady Quinn, received far more attention all week than Ohio State's No. 10, Smith. Brady Quinn was to Troy Smith this week what Laura Quinn was to Brady's other sister (Kelly, if you're scoring at home).

"It doesn't really matter to me," Smith said afterward, about the little praise he's received as a passer this season. "It matters that people respect our offense as a whole. And it matters that I'm the leader of the offense."

All those weeks ago, against Texas, Smith was not yet the leader of the offense. Tonight he most certainly was. The difference was obvious, and it will be next season as well.

Near the end of the postgame press conference, a reporter asked both Ginn and Smith how this win sets up Ohio State for next season, and whether they knew where the national championship game would be played. Ginn supplied a bland answer and may have forgotten the second part of the question. Smith smiled, then replied, "The national championship is here next year. We like that."