In honor of Troy Smith, who celebrated his 24th birthday yesterday, here is an excerpt of my book, “When Legends Were Made: Ohio State Buckeyes.”
While all other 19 chapters are devoted to one player or coach and the one game that transformed him into a Buckeye legend, Troy’s chapter deals with his performances in the 2004, 2005 and 2006 Michigan games.
Troy Smith spent his first Ohio State-Michigan game in uniform as a redshirt freshman freezing on the sideline as the Buckeyes continued their march to the 2002 national championship.
Two years later, Smith had taken control of the quarterback position and had a game for the ages against the Wolverines. The 37-21 win capped a comeback of epic proportions, both for the team and its sophomore signal-caller. Just six weeks earlier, both had been relegated to the college football scrapheap.
The Buckeyes had started the 2004 season with Smith’s classmate Justin Zwick under center, and he led them to three straight victories, including a heart-pounding 24-21 home win over Marshall that came down to a 55-yard field goal by kicker Mike Nugent on the game’s final play.
But when the team entered its Big Ten conference schedule, the bottom dropped out for Zwick and the Buckeyes. OSU dropped a 33-27 overtime decision at Northwestern, returned home for a 24-13 loss to Wisconsin and then went to Iowa to absorb a 33-7 drubbing at the hands of the Hawkeyes.
Ohio State was facing the prospect of beginning a conference season with four consecutive losses for the first time in 82 years and was facing it without Zwick, who had suffered a separation of his throwing shoulder against Iowa.
Enter Smith, who threw his first collegiate touchdown pass to account for the only score against the Hawkeyes before leading the Buckeyes to victories over Indiana, Penn State and Michigan State. The following week, OSU went to Purdue and came back with a 24-17 defeat, leaving the team with a 6-4 record heading into its 2004 season finale with Michigan.
The Wolverines entered the Nov. 20 contest on an eight-game winning streak, boasting a 9-1 record and ranked No. 7 in the country. They were already on their way to a Rose Bowl date against Texas and installed as a 4½-point favorite to beat the unranked Buckeyes.
But Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr and his team had no idea what kind of a buzzsaw they would encounter when Smith took the field and began to work his magic. The sellout crowd of 105,456 fans in Ohio Stadium was barely settled in its seats when the first burst of fireworks went off.
Coming out in a shotgun formation, Smith picked up 8 yards around right end on the first play of the game and then senior fullback-turned-tailback Branden Joe took a sweep around left end for 5 yards and a first down.
Three plays later, though, the Buckeyes were faced with third-and-12 when Smith faded to pass. As Michigan linebacker (and former Cleveland Glenville teammate) Pierre Woods bore down on the OSU quarterback, Joe got just enough of Woods to allow Smith time to get the throw away.
Streaking down the middle of the field on a post route was redshirt freshman receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who had a step on Michigan safety Ernest Shazor. The ball from Smith was on the money and Gonzalez motored into the end zone with a 68-yard touchdown reception, the first score of his career.
Nugent added the extra point and the Buckeyes enjoyed a 7-0 lead with 13:47 left in the first quarter.
That was about all Ohio State fans had to cheer about in the first period, however. The Wolverines responded with touchdowns on back-to-back possessions to take a 14-7 lead.
First, Michigan QB Chad Henne drove his team 87 yards in nine plays, capping that drive with a 4-yard pass to junior receiver Jason Avant. Then, after OSU punter Kyle Turano shanked a 21-yarder in his own territory, Henne took advantage of a short field and finished off a six-play, 43-yard drive by handing the ball to tailback Mike Hart for a 1-yard plunge.
Michigan had a 14-7 lead with 6:03 still remaining in the first quarter, a period in which the teams combined for three touchdowns, 11 first downs and 266 total yards.
But while many times during the 2004 season Ohio State had not responded well to adversity, this game served as a performance in stark contrast.
Late in the first quarter, the Buckeyes started a possession on their own 1-yard line and proceeded to control the line of scrimmage like they had at no other point all season. All it took was a stare from Smith and the quarterback’s simple admonishment, “We are not going to lose this game.”
The drive began with Joe giving the team some breathing room when he rushed for 17 yards on the first two plays, and then Smith found freshman receiver Ted Ginn Jr. on a crossing pattern that gained 17 more.
Later in the drive, Smith hooked up with Holmes on a third-and-4 play that covered 34 yards, moving the ball to the Michigan 25-yard line. Two plays later, Smith took a quarterback draw 14 yards through the left side of the line, and then three plays after that, he slithered through a crack in the line and into the end zone on a 2-yard sneak.
Nugent tacked on the PAT to complete the 12-play, 99-yard drive, the Buckeyes’ longest touchdown march in six seasons.
And they weren’t through. While the OSU defense rose up to limit Michigan to just 29 yards on its final four possessions of the first half, Smith and the offense continued the pressure.
Ginn gathered in a 42-yard pass from Smith on the next possession and junior tight end Ryan Hamby had a 20-yard catch as Ohio State pushed its way to a first-and-goal at the U-M 2. But the Buckeyes couldn’t get the ball in the end zone and wound up turning it over on downs.
However, the good field position ultimately paid off as they got the ball back and turned to Nugent, who knocked through a 21-yard chip shot to give the Buckeyes a 17-14 lead with 2:16 left until halftime.
Smith and Ginn got their team into position for more points near the end of the half when the OSU quarterback first scrambled for 18 yards and then hit his freshman receiver for a 26-yard play. The drive got only as far as the Michigan 24 as time was running out, but Nugent came on to hit a 42-yard field goal on the final play of the half to give the Buckeyes a 20-14 advantage.
As the second half began, the OSU defense was still smothering Michigan. The Wolverines’ first possession of the third quarter was a three-and-out series that netted minus-4 yards, and their second wasn’t much better – six plays for 16 yards.
But after that second possession, U-M punter Adam Finley got off a 48-yard rocket that Ginn fielded on his own 18 and then brought the crowd to its feet. He ran out of the grasp of two Michigan defenders, cut to the far sideline and outraced Finley to the end zone, polishing off the 82-yard return that gave Ohio State a 13-point cushion at 27-14.
That lead swelled to 20 when the Buckeyes got the ball back. Smith couldn’t top his 99-yard drive but came close by engineering a 97-yard march that all but put the top on Michigan’s coffin.
Again, the OSU quarterback turned to Joe to get the team out of its hole and the running back responded by going 12 yards on the first play of the drive. After that, Smith took it upon himself to run for 8 yards and then 11 before scrambling out of harm’s way on a pass play and not stopping until he had galloped 46 yards, bobbing and weaving his way through the heart of the Michigan defense.
That gave the Buckeyes a first-and-10 at the U-M 18, and three plays later Smith hooked up with Holmes again. It was a beautiful faked fade pattern that Holmes broke back to the middle of the field, and Smith’s throw was perfect for a 12-yard touchdown.
Nugent again added the extra point, finishing the 10-play drive and making it 34-14 in favor of the Buckeyes with 1:53 to play in the third quarter.
The Wolverines came back to at least make the game interesting with a 62-yard drive that took just 64 seconds to execute. Henne connected on all three passes he threw during the march, including a 38-yard touchdown to senior receiver Braylon Edwards, who made a nice over-the-shoulder catch in the corner of the end zone.
But even though Michigan had climbed within 13 points at 34-21 at the 10:56 mark of the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes didn’t seem too worried about weathering a comeback. Turano fired the first salvo with a 71-yard punt to pin Michigan back at its own 20, and the OSU defense stuffed the Wolverines there as they gambled and lost on a fourth-and-1 play at the 29.
The Buckeyes turned that sequence into a 48-yard field goal by Nugent, pushing the lead back to 16 points with just 7:15 left in the game.
After that, the Wolverines got no closer than the OSU 31-yard line. Their next-to-last drive fizzled on another fourth-down play and then Ohio State safety Nate Salley put the exclamation point on the Buckeyes’ win when he intercepted a Henne pass in the final seconds.
The 37-21 victory was chock full of outstanding individual performances by Ohio State players. Ginn grabbed five receptions and returned four punts for 210 all-purpose yards. His punt return for a touchdown was his fourth of the 2004 season, tying the all-time NCAA record for the most in a single season and establishing new single-season and career records at Ohio State.
Holmes and Gonzalez combined for five receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown apiece while on defense, linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter combined for 20 tackles and knocked down four of Henne’s passes.
But all of those stellar performances were outshone by Smith. He turned in the finest running and passing day ever for an Ohio State quarterback, rushing for 145 yards and one touchdown while throwing for 241 yards and a pair of scores. In their long and illustrious history, the Buckeyes had never had a quarterback rush for more than 100 yards and throw for more than 200 in the same game.
“I think us coming together as a team was what did it,” Smith said. “You don’t really realize what this rivalry is really all about until you’re in it and get a ‘W.’ Our hats are off to Michigan, but today was Ohio State’s day.”
As he sat in the victorious locker room, the quarterback laughed and soaked up the moment, all the time wearing a 50,000-watt grin. But to fully realize what that smile meant, history had to be rewound to discover that the quarterback’s future as a Buckeye was touch-and-go on more than one occasion. In fact, he nearly never donned a scarlet and gray uniform at all.
The hardcover book is scheduled to be released next month, but you can pre-order it right now (and for less money than you can buy it in bookstores). Just follow this link: When Legends Were Made: Ohio State Buckeyes.
Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to running back Jonathan Wells. Born July 21, 1979, Wells was an all-state performer for John Curtis Christian School in his native River Ridge, La., and helped that school to three consecutive 4-A state championships. He lettered at Ohio State from 1998-2001, and rushed for 1,294 yards as a senior in ’01. He was also the team MVP that season, a year that included 129 yards and three TDs against Michigan as the Buckeyes won a 26-20 decision. Wells was a fourth-round selection by the Houston Texans in the 2002 NFL draft and played with the Texans through the 2005 season. His best season was his first when he started 11 of 16 games and rushed for 529 yards and three TDs. Wells is currently in the Indianapolis organization but has not played in the NFL since 2005.
Also born on this day in history: Oscar-winning director Norman Jewison (“The Cincinnati Kid,” “In The Heat Of The Night,” “Moonstruck”); former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno; Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr; U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming); veteran character actor Edward Herrmann; Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau; action film director Tony Scott (“Top Gun,” “Crimson Tide”); Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Geoff Jenkins; Milwaukee Brewers pitcher CC Sabathia; Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow; British golfer Paul Casey; actor Josh Hartnett; comedian and Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams; wry comic actor Jon Lovitz; Olympic gold medal-winning soccer player and iconic shirt-remover Brandi Chastain; and pop singer Yusuf Islam (born Steven Demetre Georgiou but known much better as Cat Stevens).
Several other luminaries who have passed into history shared July 21 birthdays. They include Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway; violin virtuoso Isaac Stern; U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota); and one of my all-time favorite comic actors Don Knotts.
** Midway through yesterday’s first round of the British Open, I suddenly remember why rooting for Greg Norman is an exercise in futility. Even when he was at the peak of his game, he never seemed able to close the show in a major. Norman won two Claret Jugs, taking home the Open championship in 1986 and ’93. But yesterday marked the eighth time in his career that he had the 54-hole in a major and failed to win.
** Of course, if you’re feeling sorry for Norman, don’t. Outside of the major championships, he has been ultra-successful. He won 87 tournaments worldwide including 20 on the PGA Tour, and he has been extremely successful in business, owning an estate that has been estimated as high as $500 million. And he got to go home yesterday with new wife Chris Evert. All in all, that ain’t too bad.
** I know the Miami Dolphins are in serious need of bodies as they rebuild for the future. But someone is going to have to explain to me how you give up the likes of defensive end Jason Taylor for only two future draft picks – a second-round selection next year and a sixth-rounder in 2010. That’s the best the Dolphins could get for a six-time Pro Bowler?
** Just like clockwork, NFL teams are beginning to come to terms with their first-round draft picks as training camps begin to open. Within the last week, St. Louis has signed No. 2 pick, defensive end Chris Long of Virginia; Baltimore inked No. 18, quarterback Joe Flacco of Delaware; and the New York Jets signed No. 30, tight end Dustin Keller of Purdue. Of course, Keller was New York’s second first-round pick. They chose defensive end Vernon Gholston of Ohio State at No. 6 and he remains unsigned.
** Just in case you care, the Seattle SuperSonics will henceforth be known as the Oklahoma City Thunder. Pardon me, but that sounds more like an arena league team than an NBA franchise.
** One of these days – maybe – Michelle Wie will get a headline for actually winning a golf tournament.
** Remember that fine CBS received for Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show? Sure you do. Well, a three-judge panel in a Philadelphia federal appeals court this morning threw out the $550,000 fine, ruling that the Federal Communications Commission “acted arbitrarily and capriciously” in issuing the fine for the fleeting image of nudity.
** Congratulations to former Ohio State quarterback Rex Kern on being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. It was an honor long overdue.
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