Big Game Troy thrives in pressure-packed games
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There is a look in Troy Smith's eyes these days.
A Vince Young look in his eyes.
A look that says, "There's no way Ohio State is losing while I'm wearing its uniform."
Young had that look at this time last year, in the run-up to Texas' upset of USC to win the national championship. The confidence was unmistakable. The charisma was palpable. The leadership was remarkable. And the end result -- an epic performance in the Rose Bowl -- was certainly memorable.
And he has been in charge on all his most pressure-packed days as a Buckeye.
Big Game Troy has three career 300-yard passing games: two against Michigan (last season and this season) and one in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame. In the games that received the biggest buildup this year -- at Texas, at Iowa, Michigan -- Smith completed 67 percent of his throws, with 10 touchdown passes and just one interception. His finest game as an unheralded sophomore also was against Michigan: three touchdowns accounted for and a career-high 145 rushing yards.
When the stakes are highest, Smith has a Youngian combination of confidence, charisma and leadership.
"If you're making an all-time Ohio State team, Troy could be captain," offensive tackle Kirk Barton said. "I know there have been a lot of great older players, but Troy's a guy you'd follow, like Patton, into battle."
The Buckeyes will follow him into University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night. In the seemingly endless buildup to the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game -- kickoff is set for sometime in late February -- the only potential knock anyone has been able to find on Smith is the alleged Heisman hex.
From Reggie Bush's inexplicable lateral in '06 to Jason White's all-around collapse in '04 to Eric Crouch's inability to play up to the award in '02 there is a spotty history of bad BCS bowl performances by recent Heisman Trophy winners.
Of course, that conveniently overlooks big BCS bowl games by Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer and Chris Weinke after winning the award. But the questions have been flying about whether the latest owner of the Heisman hardware might succumb to the so-called hex.
The answer: about as likely as a foot of snow in Phoenix.
"Troy's a different bird," Barton said. "He's not going to let that bother him. He's too good. I'm not worried about that at all.
"I wouldn't want anyone else other than Troy at quarterback."
The guy who used to cut out of the pocket almost too much has become a guy who will stand in and deliver the ball with an angry lineman ready to rattle his molars.
In the Michigan game Nov. 18, Ohio State repeatedly spread the field and left Smith with scant protection against the Wolverines' fierce front four. He took a beating -- especially in the first half -- but kept firing strikes to his receivers.
"He's a guy who has great courage," Buckeyes offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "Everyone talks about us having a spread-out kind of offense, and if you do that, he's going to get hit. You've got to have the right mentality to handle that situation and not get rattled."
Smith doesn't rattle in scoring position, either. Look at his red zone work this season: 20 touchdowns, zero interceptions inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Impressive as the TD number is, the absence of picks is even better.
The guy who, in his younger years, occasionally would let his arm strength get him into trouble became downright averse to mistakes. His touchdown-interception ratio was a tad better than 2-1 as a sophomore, was 4-1 as a junior and is 6-1 as a senior.
"I hate throwing interceptions," Smith said. "That's my pet peeve in football. The person that intercepts it, I want to hit them so hard, I want to get the ball back.
"I hate watching it on film. I even hate throwing interceptions on video games. I'm a quarterback through and through. When I watch another quarterback throw an interception, I sort of feel their pain, too."
As a born-and-raised quarterback, Smith grew up idolizing Warren Moon and Dan Marino -- not the typical choices in his rough East Cleveland neighborhood.
"Loved 'em both," Smith said. "Where I'm from, everybody loved Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, the flashy guys. I remember one of my brother's friends when he asked me who my favorite player was and I said Dan Marino, he looked at me like I was crazy.
"There's nothing in the world like dropping back. There's no prettier play than a tight spiral, 65, 70 yards, the receiver not breaking stride, catching it and scoring a touchdown. Dan Marino embodied that. Stood in the pocket, took a hit and delivered the ball. I admired his toughness."
Marino and Moon are Hall of Famers, but neither has what Smith could have by the end of the night Monday: a collegiate national championship, culminating a season-long run at the top of every poll.
"We have one last game," Smith said. "We have to seal the deal. We can go down in history as the best team to play college football, arguably. That's huge.
"It's a fairy tale. It really is. I've read so many quotes and so many stories about great teams and great leaders. This team could possibly be one where, 10 or 15 years down the line, there could be some other young guy trying to pattern himself after what we've done. That means a lot.
"That would be legendary. We have a chance to possibly be that team."
For these Buckeyes to be that team, Troy Smith must be that guy one last time. Big Game Troy.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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