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State of Ohio State

Smith, Buckeyes regain confidence, focus on Michigan

Posted: Monday November 13, 2006 11:15AM; Updated: Monday November 13, 2006 2:57PM
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Troy Smith was back to his Heisman-hopeful self in Saturday's 54-10 win over Northwestern in Evanston.
Troy Smith was back to his Heisman-hopeful self in Saturday's 54-10 win over Northwestern in Evanston.
John Biever/SI
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- He was bundled up almost beyond recognition, his head hidden under a white stocking cap, and his No. 10 jersey buried inside a long, Ohio State coat to keep out the Lake Michigan chill. And yet the lingering, Buckeye-dominated crowd had no trouble identifying Troy Smith when he emerged from the locker room following Buckeyes 54-10 rout of Northwestern on Saturday. Halting their chant of "One More Week" -- an ode to the epic, 1-vs.-2 duel that awaits in Columbus -- they serenaded him with "Heisman, Heisman," nearly drowning out his interview with ABC.

The previous two weeks, Smith hadn't looked like a Heisman candidate. He threw for a total of just one touchdown -- and one pick -- in those wins, a 44-0 rout of Minnesota and a much more troubling 17-10 squeaker over lowly Illinois. He had admitted to nursing a sore thumb on his throwing hand, and people were quietly wondering whether he was backing into the Nov. 18 Michigan game instead of peaking at the right time.

That was, until he dismantled the Wildcats. Smith completed his first four pass attempts Saturday to four different receivers, leading OSU on a pair of first-quarter touchdown drives. He finished with four touchdowns and one pick, 12 (of 19) completions spread between seven receivers, and 185 yards in three quarters. As much as Saturday was about beating Northwestern to improve to 11-0, it was more about re-awakening a struggling offense and setting the tone for the opponent everyone cares about: the Wolverines.

And this kind of performance? "It helped Troy out a lot," said Smith's best buddy, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. "It brought his composure back."

Composure is what has separated Smith from opponents on the biggest of stages. It's what helped him leave Texas in the dust back in September -- the last time he played a 1-vs.-2 game -- by throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions. It's what allowed him to have blockbuster games in the Buckeyes' past two, BCS-clinching wins over Michigan. It's what kept him calm in the pocket, checking off to little-used receivers like Brian Hartline (zero career touchdowns coming into Saturday) for two scores against Northwestern.

And it gives him the confidence to make Heisman-highlight-reel plays like the pass he threw with three seconds left in the first half on Saturday: a 34-yard, three-quarter-armed bomb to Ginn down the right sideline. Ginn, who only looked up at the last second, saw the ball fall into his arms for a touchdown, giving OSU a 33-10 lead. Smith, meanwhile, had a good excuse for missing its beautiful conclusion: "I was getting hit -- in the mouth."

Grill shots aside, the Northwestern game could not have gone better for the Buckeyes' offense. Smith helped them capitalize on all five of the Wildcats' turnovers, and is looking dangerous (and certainly not hampered by the thumb) heading into the biggest rivalry game of his life. He used his scrambling skills effectively, running twice to set up OSU's seventh touchdown midway through the third quarter, and only threw one pick, a bomb to Ginn that the wideout claims got caught up in the wind.

"I thought he was in charge the whole time," OSU coach Jim Tressel said of Smith. "Sometimes he looks like he ad-libs, but he's only ad-libbing because he knows what [the defense is] doing and he knows where to find someone."

The rest of the Buckeyes, meanwhile, are happy Smith is on their side. Defensive tackle David Patterson said, "I just enjoy getting to watch the best player in the country when I'm off the field." And center Doug Datish, before exiting Saturday's postgame press conference, gave Smith a startling slap on the behind. Smith turned away from the podium, raised his eyebrows, and laughed.

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