THEY MADE their way through the scrum of players and coaches who had gathered near midfield of Sun Devil Stadium, grinning widely and skipping along like two kids on their way to the corner candy store. Wideout Ted Ginn Jr. then jumped on the back of his closest friend at Ohio State, quarterback Troy Smith, and uttered words that will also be heard in Los Angeles, Austin and South Bend. "Can't wait till next year, baby," Ginn shouted into Smith's ear. "No one can stop us! No one!"
For the record, the Buckeyes' season had been over for a grand total of two minutes and 24 seconds when Ginn began to turn his eye toward the 2006 season. But when you consider the way Ohio State beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl on Monday night, you couldn't blame Ginn for his excitement about the Buckeyes' prospects next fall. An offense that piled up 617 total yards in a 34-20 win over the Fighting Irish brings back eight starters, and while the defense will be young, it will also be fast, giving Ohio State the ingredients it needs to return to Arizona for the national championship game next Jan. 8.
"Tonight was all about gaining momentum for next season," said the 6'1", 215-pound Smith as he sat in a golf cart outside the stadium an hour after the game. "We think we're set up to make a run at the title."
If that's to happen, Ohio State will need monster seasons from Smith and Ginn, an electric duo who were high school teammates in Cleveland and whose friendship goes back 14 years to when they were playing in the same peewee football league. In the Fiesta Bowl, Smith showed that he's rapidly developing into a shorter version of Vince Young. A junior, Smith beat the Irish defense with both his arm (he competed 19 of 28 passes for a career-high 342 yards and two touchdowns) and his legs (he rushed 13 times for 66 yards). The key play of the game illustrated Smith's blend of passing and running ability. Leading 27-20 with 2:31 left, the Buckeyes faced third-and-11 from their 25. Smith dropped to pass, was grabbed by Irish defensive end Ronald Talley, spun out of his grasp, scrambled to his right, then threw a laser to flanker Anthony Gonzalez for a 15-yard gain. On the next play Antonio Pittman ran 60 yards for a touchdown, sealing the victory.
"His best football is ahead of him," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said of Smith. "He's definitely on the rise."
Smith's off-the-charts growth over the last three months has even taken his coaches by surprise, in part because his progress was slowed after he admitted in December 2004 to accepting $500 from a booster. He was suspended for two games--the Alamo Bowl last season and the '05 opener, against Miami of Ohio. He split time with Justin Zwick in the Buckeyes' 25-22 loss to Texas on Sept. 10, but after that game Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels decided that the offense couldn't establish a rhythm with the platoon system, so they gave Smith the job because they thought he had more potential. Daniels began meeting with Smith for 30-minute film sessions four times a week. The two would sit in Daniels's office and, in painstaking detail, analyze clips of practice and of future opponents; slowly, an elite player was taking shape.
"After a few of our film sessions you could just see his whole approach changing out on the field," says Daniels, adding that Smith has improved more in one season than any quarterback he has tutored in his 41 years of coaching. "He's become so much more comfortable throwing the ball. He could always run, but now he can run and pass. He's a real weapon."
This season Smith, who after a loss to Penn State guided the Buckeyes to seven straight wins, led the Big Ten in passing efficiency with a rating of 158.4. (His 2004 passer rating was 134.2.) His favorite target of late has been Ginn, who scorched the Irish on a 56-yard touchdown catch and later scored on a 68-yard reverse. Like Smith, the 6-foot, 175-pound Ginn, a sophomore who has been timed at 10.5 seconds in the 100 meters, struggled early in the season, failing to catch more than three passes in four of the first five games. But as Smith became more comfortable in the pocket, he began rifling more balls in Ginn's direction. The result? In the Buckeyes' last two games, against Michigan and Notre Dame, Ginn caught 17 passes for 256 yards.
"Ted and I have got so much chemistry," said Smith. "We've been hanging out since I was seven years old. That means something on the field. Ted has the tools to be the best receiver in the nation."
A few minutes later Tressel hopped into the golf cart with Smith. He gave his quarterback a pat on the shoulder, then the two zipped off into the warm desert night, beginning what could be a memorable ride for the Buckeyes in 2006.