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Smith shines in BCS spotlight

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Did history just repeat itself Monday night in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl?

Last year at this time, a fancy-footed quarterback wearing No. 10 put on a magnificent dual-threat performance that stamped him as a Heisman Trophy contender, and stamped his team as a national title threat. America has been dazzled by Vince Young ever since, and the Texas Longhorns have been undefeated.

This year, the unstoppable No. 10 in a BCS bowl was Ohio State's Troy Smith. Yes, Troy Smith.

You were thinking Brady Quinn, the celebrated Irish QB and Heisman finalist? You were wrong. Smith, the quarterback maligned in the past as an erratic thrower and suspended last year at this time for taking cash from a booster, was the perfect 10 Monday night.

After compiling 408 yards of total offense and owning Notre Dame on every key third down in the Buckeyes' 34-20 win, it's time to give Troy Smith a new name: Vince on training wheels.

Really fast training wheels.

But let's tease out the comparison a little farther. Last year Young put on his dazzling show in the Rose Bowl, then brought his team back to the same game in 2006 to play for the national championship.

After shredding the Fighting Irish, Smith was asked whether he knew where the '07 national title game will be played.

"The national championship game is here next year," Smith said, on cue, then smiled. "We like that."

The Buckeyes have to love that. They own the Valley of the Sun in a way the Cardinals and Sun Devils can only dream of. They've won three of the last four Fiesta Bowls, including the 2002 national title.

And they should be bringing an absolutely loaded offense with them into the 2006 season. This unit cranked out 617 yards and punted only once against the Fighting Irish -- and it could be better next year.

They'll have wide receiver/kick returner/all-around menace Ted Ginn Jr. to scare defenses senseless. He ripped Notre Dame for 260 all-purpose yards and two more long touchdowns, giving him 13 TDs of 42 yards or longer in two college seasons. Teddy Ballgame of the Buckeyes might be the biggest home-run threat since Teddy Ballgame of the BoSox.

(If you don't think finding ways to get Ginn involved in the offense is important, consider this stat: The Buckeyes are 9-1 when he touches the ball five or more times from scrimmage and 10-4 when he doesn't.)

They'll have workhorse running back Antonio Pittman, who developed into a 1,000-yard rusher and pounded for 135 yards against the Irish. That included a game-clinching, 60-yard touchdown run in the closing minutes.

They'll have three returning starters on the offensive line.

And most importantly they'll have Smith, a quarterback who seems to be blossoming into a star before our very eyes.

Smith ended the regular season by leading the Buckeyes to a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback win at archrival Michigan, throwing for a career-high 300 yards and a touchdown. Then Monday he outdid that, exposing a flawed Notre Dame defense that was way too slow to keep up with all that Ohio State speed.

Smith threw for 342 yards, including touchdown bombs of 56 yards to Ginn and 85 yards to Santonio Holmes. When he wasn't doing it with his arm, the junior was repeatedly scooting off for big scrambles in key situations.

"It was my biggest fear going into the game," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said of Smith's elusiveness. "Sure enough, here it is the first third down of the game, and he runs for a first down. That's one of the biggest problems we had in the first half; we couldn't get off the field on third down."

Actually, it was a problem all game. And at no point was it bigger than on Ohio State's final possession.

Notre Dame had just scored to make it 27-20 and spike the anxiety meter on the Buckeyes' sideline. But the Irish should have tried an onside kick at that point. They hadn't stopped Smith all night, and they weren't going to stop him now.

Third-and-9 from the Ohio State 16: Smith drops a pass in the flat to Pittman for 10 yards.

First down.

Moments later it was third-and-11 from the Ohio State 25: Smith drops back and holds the ball as Notre Dame defensive end Ronald Talley bears down from behind. At the last moment Smith spins out of the near-certain sack, rolls and fires to Anthony Gonzalez for 15 yards.

First down. And ball game. On the next play a demoralized Irish defense surrendered the 60-yard backbreaker to Pittman.

On the night, Smith converted seven third downs into first downs: two with his feet, five with his arm.

"Just keeping it alive," Smith said of his third-down play. "Keeping it alive anyway we can and keeping the ball moving."

The expectations for 2006 remain very much alive in Columbus after this game. Ohio State will be significantly challenged to replace its stellar senior linebacking corps of A.J. Hawk, Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter, but the Buckeyes shouldn't have to rely on winning games with defense and the kicking game, no matter how successful that formula has been for Tressel.

"Probably for the last four or five years we have been known as a defensive team," Smith said. "I'm sure we still will be known as a defensive team, even though we lose key and major guys. Now it's going to be more of a balance, the defense and the offensive team, hopefully."

That balance is largely made possible by Smith's growth as a quarterback during his college career.

Last season he was a raw scrambler with a squatty build and suspect passing skills. This season he began the year sitting out the opener, the second game of his suspension for taking money from the booster, and that helped lead to a loss against Texas on Sept. 10.

Had Smith played in the opening game against Miami of Ohio, he certainly would have been the starter in that showdown game against the Longhorns. In fact, he should have been the starter anyway. But Tressel stuck with Justin Zwick, and went back to Zwick in the second half against Texas even after Smith had gotten the team going. That decision helped derail Ohio State's national title dreams.

But Smith took over the job for good the following week. Now he finishes in the national top 10 in pass efficiency, having shredded big-timers Michigan and Notre Dame to end the season.

"He's very passionate about being a great quarterback," Tressel said. "Each day he's taking a step closer to it."

This was a giant leap. Perhaps a Vince Young leap -- a history-repeating leap that sets Ohio State on the path back to Arizona in 2007.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.