Smith had an answer for everything

Updated: December 10, 2004, 10:08 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

There are two Heisman finalists from Oklahoma, and there are two finalists from USC. But there are also two finalists from Helix High in San Diego, which until this season was known as the alma mater of Basketball Hall of Fame center Bill Walton. Not any longer.

Trojan tailback Reggie Bush, one year behind Utah quarterback Alex Smith, played behind him in the backfield for two seasons. When Bush arrived at the College Football Awards Special welcome party on Wednesday night, he embraced Alex.

"I can remember in high school talking to my brother Josh about Reggie," Smith said. "Josh said, 'You watch. He's going to be a Heisman winner one day.'"

His own name, Alex recalled, didn't come up in the discussion.

Despite all that Smith achieved this season, he remains the least known and least recognized of the Heisman finalists. But it doesn't take long to understand how much the junior achieved.

"His whole year was great," Bush said. "He put up amazing numbers. He led his team to a BCS game. That's unheard of. They went undefeated. That was a special year."

On Friday morning, Smith made his way to his flight from Orlando, Fla., to New York relatively unnoticed, one of the few times all autumn that his movements weren't tracked by 11 players with malice in their hearts.

Once it became apparent Smith's ability to run and pass fueled the Utes' rise to an 11-0 record and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, he became a target. It began against San Diego State, the game the Heisman finalist named as his Heisman moment.

"It was the first time I stepped on the field," Smith said of the 51-28 road victory in his hometown, "and I felt like the entire goal of the defense was to get me out of the game. It egged me on. I threw five touchdowns. I was gone that night."

Gone, as in to a new level of excellence. Smith was 22 of 33 for 298 yards passing and added another 45 rushing against the Aztecs. "It was a home crowd. It was a big deal. Two years ago against them I lost my redshirt. They were the team that was going to beat us out. That was the premier game of the conference, against the team that almost beat Michigan (24-21)."

Urban Meyer, the old Utah and new Florida coach, said Smith had the best preparation for a game of any player he's ever been around. No matter what defenses attempted, Smith had an answer. Defenses tried to physically intimidate the slender Smith. They tried trash talk. He answered with his play and with some talk of his own.

"They were taking late shots, trying to get me in the pile," Smith said. "It happened every game after that. They were bringing pressure, trying to hit me any time I was running with the ball in the option, making reads. Against BYU, I make a read (handed off) and this guy hits me. He said, 'There goes the Heisman!', and we're up 52-21. I got my two cents in."

As in?

"I told him, 'Have fun sitting in your house while we're playing in a bowl game. Have fun spending Christmas at home,'" Smith said.

No matter what a defense did, Smith had an answer.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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