"I think it scared me more than anything," admitted Smith, victim of three major injuries from 2008-11. "I was ready to play again after that, so when Coach felt the time was right for me to get back in then he put me back in."
But not until the first play of the fourth quarter. Until then starting right guard Smith either pedaled the sideline bike to stay limber; or watched third-period action as Tennessee rallied from 27-14 down to within three points. All Smith could do was counsel backup Justin Malone and await the call. "I had to stay loose because I was out of the game for a while. We wanted to get Justin some snaps, so I had to stay loose.
"And I really didn't want to go back out and hinder the team from them making progress. So I was just waiting my turn, waiting until my number was called."
It came as the teams changed directions and State faced 3rd-and-7 needing almost desperately to move the chains and not give the hot Volunteers the chance to tie or even take a lead. Smith trotted out for the final period and on the first snap—surprise!—it was a run through his side. LaDarius Perkins busted a 20-yarder that seemed to put some spark back in the whole Bulldog offense. They didn't score on that series but netted two first downs, apparently cooling Tennessee down as well because they were three-and-through on their chance.
And after a clutch forced turnover, with CB Johnthan Banks stripping Devrin Young at the Vol 20, it was Smith and company taking charge with a three-play touchdown drive. Mississippi State would need one more surge later, after Tennessee had made it 34-31, and they got it in a big way. With Smith working each of the dozen snaps.
"On that last drive I was tired," he admitted. "And I wasn't really thinking at all, besides my assignment. I knew if everyone did their job that we were going to be successful. And that's what we did." Smith was so focused on his specific job he saw nothing, literally, of Tyler Russell's stunning nine-yard touchdown toss to Malcolm Johnson.
"People were running off the field and I was still blocking my man!" Smith laughed.
He could afford the levity, mostly of course because the Bulldogs had just won a completely crucial home game over a SEC opponent. Mississippi State walked, maybe even danced a bit, off Scott Field both 6-0 and bowl eligible half-way through their 2012 schedule. The 3-0 SEC record also sets them up for a showdown with 3-0 Alabama in two weeks.
Yet Smith's good humor had a personal angle as well. Those old injuries meant the fifth-year senior had played just 21 total games in his first four college seasons. Even this year Smith is being tightly scripted; one series on opening night, about two-thirds of the snaps against Auburn; no action at all the next two games and just two series at Kentucky. The obvious goal was having him really ready for Tennessee.
So when the training staff had to come out and check on #67 laying on the turf, yes, anxiety was automatic. Fortunately it was nothing more than a short scare. "It's OK, it's no problem with my knee."
Instead it was a lot of right for State when Smith was upright on the field. Malone was not a liability of course, participating in some scoring series himself and performing with the consistency he showed when taking over Smith's job most of the previous three games. Yet there was no denying the impact Smith's simple presence had on the MSU offensive mind. And muscle too.
"I mean, just to have Tobias out there, just the leader he is on the offensive line," Russell said. "I know when things aren't going good he steps up on offensive line and calms those guys down, I don't have to do it myself. It's a blessing to have him back."
Not that Smith claimed credit for those decisive fourth-quarter series. "That was the whole offensive line as a unit," he said. At the same time… "Oh, it makes me real proud that my coach trusted me at this point with all I've been through." Perkins certainly trusted Smith's skills by running to the right side for most of his big carries. And most of Russell's best fourth-quarter throws came with Smith shielding the quarterback on drops-backs or right-rollouts.
For the night Russell got a career-high 291 passing yards on 23-of-37 throwing with two touchdowns. Including the highlight-tape one Smith never saw. "Tyler is a big-time quarterback. With that we're going to grow as an offense around him. As long as he keeps making plays and we keep giving him time. I know we gave up two sacks tonight, I think we only had three on the season so we were kind of upset as a unit. We don't like that."
But everyone loves having Smith in action. He got his season-high snaps even with the missed quarter-and-an-eighth and claims he's ready for next week against Middle Tennessee. "I felt pretty good. I'm still 100% now, so for me to be 100% at this point of the season is great." Even better is being part of a Bulldog offense that averaged five yards each hike and upstaged a Tennessee team of much higher regard.
"I think we really had a coming-out party tonight for the offense, against a big-time opponent," Smith said. "They played us well, I think as an offense we gelled to come make plays when it was time."
Big-time or not, Smith said even the #19 Bulldogs convinced themselves a chip was sitting on the collective shoulder pads. "We felt disrespected, that we didn't have respect from the nation." Most specifically the blocking Bulldogs who have been referred to as the weaker link on this side. That perception was pounded Saturday evening.
"It's always a statement for an offensive line, a challenge with pretty big guys in a SEC game. We took it as a challenge to move the ball on them."
Which they did, most and best though when Smith was part of the party. As he said, the confidence his coaches showed by sending him back out for the final quarter was also a victory. "And it's a really special place in my heart where when I get done playing I can look back on this and smile."
By the way, about that ‘look back' business… Though this would be his final State season by normal accounting, all those injuries offer the possibility of a successful appeal for a sixth year. TE Marcus Green is playing on one, after all, and he only had two major setbacks. Smith can trump that. Folk have speculated that there will be one more season with #67 lining up at guard, but there's been nothing official.
At least not until Smith was asked Saturday night if he'd made a decision to seek a sixth year. Now that brought his biggest smile of all. "You're right, I am!"