Michigan films offer proof of Smith's big-game status

Updated: November 18, 2006, 5:47 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- By now, you have to figure Lloyd Carr flinches at the sight of a scarlet and gray sweater-vest. Four losses in five years to Jim Tressel, in a game inflated like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float, can do that to a guy.

But Tressel is only the guy Carr has to deal with in those gut-churning postgame handshakes. He's not the three-hour heartburn that precedes the two-second handshake.

Troy Smith
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesTroy Smith rushed for 145 yards against Michigan in 2004.
The guy making the plays that have deepened Carr's worry lines into crevasses the past two years is not Jim Tressel. If there's a single Ohio State player who has roamed freely through the Michigan coach's nightmares the past two years, it has to be Troy Smith.

The Ohio State quarterback has had a tremendous career by any measurement: 24-2 as a starter, winner of 18 straight, front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. But in the game that measures largest on any scale, he's stepped up from great to unstoppable.

The first time Smith ran for 100 yards in a college game, it was against Michigan in 2004. Score: Buckeyes 37, Wolverines 21.

The first time Smith threw for 300 yards in a college game, it was against Michigan in 2005. Score: Buckeyes 25, Wolverines 21.

The next time Michigan slows down Troy Smith will be the first time.

The Wolverines' next and final opportunity to do that (pending a rematch in six weeks) is Saturday. With more on the line than ever.

"Big players rise up in the big games," Smith said Monday, his countenance so confident that it was reminiscent of Vince Young in the latter stages of the 2005 season.

In reality, rising to an occasion this large is easier said than done. Players succumb to nerves, to superior competition, to trying too hard. But Smith has the proof of his big-game status in his back pocket.

Just check the Michigan game film.

Smith will be going for the hat trick against the Wolverines, and with it a berth in the BCS National Championship Game. Michigan, bidding for its own shot at the title game, will be trying to keep No. 10 from breaking its heart one more time.

When the two teams met in 2004, Smith was considered an athlete posing as a quarterback. He'd thrown three interceptions in an upset loss to Purdue the previous week, and the seventh-ranked Wolverines needed only to roll over the Buckeyes and scatter-armed Smith for their first unbeaten Big Ten season since 1997.

But on Ohio State's fifth offensive play, Smith threw a 68-yard touchdown bomb to Anthony Gonzalez (another recurring character in Wolverines' nightmares). He later peeled off several long runs -- including a career-best 46-yarder -- and scored two times on the ground. Smith had 386 yards total offense in a major Buckeyes upset.

In 2005, Ohio State was trying to finish off an excellent season against a Michigan team looking to salvage a semblance of pride. The Wolverines looked like they were going to pull off a shocker, taking a 21-12 lead into the last half of the last quarter.

Then they simply couldn't stop Smith. On Ohio State's final two possessions he was 9-of-12 for 130 yards, ripping the heart out of 111,000 Michigan fans on consecutive touchdown drives.

Troy Smith
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesTroy Smith passed for 300 yards against the Wolverines last season.
The final drive was an Elwayesque, 88-yard heartbreaker that included a variety of Smith spins, feints, darts and narrow escapes from disaster. The play burned into every memory was his 26-yard pass to a leaping Gonzalez at the Michigan 4-yard line, setting up Antonio Pittman's winning TD with 24 seconds left.

"Usually they say white guys can't jump," a smiling Smith said of Gonzalez.

They also said Troy Smith would never amount to much as a quarterback. His redshirt freshman year Smith returned kicks and was a backup running back before finally getting his shot at the position he always wanted to play. Since then he's become more than just an athletic playmaker; he's a legit field general.

"When you think of Troy, the first thing that comes to my mind is leadership," Tressel said. "Probably the second thing is competitiveness, and maybe the third thing that jumps out to me about Troy is his hunger to be in command of what's going on."

Tressel mentioned a Monday morning film study of the Wolverines with offensive coordinator Joe Daniels and Smith.

"We might have been sitting there talking about a coverage," Tressel said, "and he'd say, 'That was nickel.' That wasn't just 'cover whatever,' that was 'nickel cover whatever.' He's just got a hunger for knowledge."

Combine that knowledge with the physical tools, and Smith has put himself in the argument for finest quarterback in school history -- maybe even conference history. That's a pretty contentious argument, but consider this: No Big Ten quarterback has won the Heisman since the Buckeyes' Les Horvath in 1944. (That's a bit of a technicality: Ohio State's Vic Janowicz was listed as a halfback when he won the award in 1950, but he threw for 561 yards that year and attempted 77 passes.)

Here is what's inarguable: Smith's place in Ohio State history will be secure with another win over the Wolverines Saturday.

In fact, they might rush out and stick his handprints in wet cement outside Ohio Stadium right after the game. He'll be the first Buckeyes QB to beat Michigan three straight times in 70 years. (Tippy Dye -- who else? -- is the answer to your trivia question.)

"We think about Michigan all year 'round," said Smith. "Michigan always means everything to Ohio State."

If Ohio State hadn't made the unpolished athlete from Cleveland its last scholarship recruit in 2002, think how different Carr's life would be.

He probably wouldn't have taken the barrage of criticism he's heard the past two offseasons. His record against Tressel wouldn't be this bad, his defense wouldn't have broken down so badly -- and he might still have last year's offensive and defensive coordinators, both of whom fled to the NFL after a 7-5 breakdown.

OK, so the coaching changes have worked out. But the Smith-induced stress of it all probably hasn't been much fun.

That's why Lloyd Carr will be the happiest man in Michigan to see Troy Smith finally pack up and leave Columbus. But he's got to get through another three hours of potential heartburn at the hands of No. 10 first.

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