Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith is in Columbus this weekend to be inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame. Smith made the trek to his alma mater from Canada where he plays quarterback for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL.
While the honor of being inducted into the Hall of Fame is much to celebrate, Smith – who owns college football’s biggest prize and also took OSU to the national championship game in 2006 – will always be recognized for his unprecedented play against the Buckeyes’ hated rivals up north.
During an interview session Friday in the Ohio Union, Smith opened up about his three straight victories against the Wolverines and the tone they set for the rivalry.
Although he grew up in Cleveland, Smith never quite grasped the magnitude of The Game until his redshirt freshman season in 2002. When it was the week of the game, Smith got his first taste of how it felt to be preparing for a battle between Ohio State and Michigan.
“Well the first year, my redshirt season here when we got a chance to win 14-9 and go to the national championship, at first I really didn’t have an understanding of what the rivalry was until I literally had to sit down and take the blue electric tape and the little wings and put it on my hat and I had to be a certain player,” Smith said referring to the scout team donning makeshift winged helmets the week before the game.
“The scout team guys, we were hated though. We took shots and, like, they weren’t messing around. This is what I’m trying to say, from 2002 on to when I got a chance to leave here, that is the tone that was set by Mike Doss, Donnie Nickey, Craig Krenzel, Kenny Peterson, Cie Grant, a young Will Smith. … The precedent was there.”
Smith didn’t get a chance to play against the Wolverines until the 2004 season as they came into Columbus as heavy favorites against the Buckeyes. Ohio State had lost the previous week against Purdue to fall to 6-4 headed into the game, while the Wolverines were 9-1 and had already clinched a Rose Bowl berth. Before the game started, it looked like a mismatch.
Smith had different plans, though, and he singlehandedly dominated the game to the tune of 241 yards passing with two touchdowns and 145 yards rushing with another touchdown as the Buckeyes embarrassed the Wolverines, 37-21. The legend of Troy began on the first series as he threw a 68-yard bomb to Anthony Gonzalez for the first score.
“Gonzalez had been a streaking bullet the whole time I had been with him on scout team,” Smith recalled. “And it’s funny because the 2004 game, his first touchdown was the deep post. We had always bragged in practice regardless of what route we ran with him, if anything had gone wrong, just go deep. His first touchdown was that deep post and that was the cornerstone or the mark of letting people know that he was a serious deep threat.”
In his second starting battle against the Wolverines in 2005, the team roles were a bit reversed. Ohio State entered Ann Arbor looking to go to a BCS bowl with an 8-2 record, while Michigan was a mediocre 7-3. Although Smith led the Buckeyes down for a touchdown on the first drive of the game, the Wolverines fought tough and held a 21-12 advantage with 7:45 left in the fourth quarter.
However, Smith started a furious rally, leading back-to-back touchdown drives to shock the Big House and send the Buckeyes to the Fiesta Bowl. Beginning the winning drive at Ohio State’s own 12-yard line, Smith knew things didn’t look good but made sure to make the plays to win the game.
“Definitely at the time it was a bleak situation. Our backs were against the wall, we started the drive in minus territory. It was about fundamentals,” Smith said about the final drive. “It was about going back to the core plays that we ran and knew. I’m talking about when the guys knew every variation like the back of their hand. And it’s funny how in … serious times you go back to the drawing board, you go back to what you know. The whole drive was putting our skill position players in situations and in opportunities to make plays against their guys.”
The most memorable part of the drive was a first-and-10 at the Michigan 31 with 47 seconds remaining. Smith took the snap from the gun and danced out of trouble to find a streaking Gonzalez down the sideline for a 27-yard gain to the Wolverine 4-yard line, setting up the winning TD.
“Got a chance to avoid a good friend of mine now in David Harris. He’s a good dude, tremendous linebacker,” Smith said of that play. “They pushed (Gonzalez) out-of-bounds and he came back in bounds. Honestly, I thought I underthrew it. I thought I underthrew it and he just made a tremendous play and that’s the difference between the guys who will make the plays for you and the guys who won’t. He had always had a dream-type situation of catching a diving touchdown pass and that was always his thing. He talked about it a lot, leaving his feet and being able to maintain possession of the ball.”
Antonio Pittman ran in for a score two plays later to cement the win. Smith finished with a then-career-high 300 passing yards and a touchdown on 27 completions and 37 attempts. He also contributed 37 yards rushing and another score on the ground.
His third and final game against the Wolverines was the most memorable as the teams were ranked as the top two in the nation. Smith dazzled the Horseshoe by completing 29 of 41 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns as the Buckeyes won again, 42-39. The performance wrapped up the Heisman Trophy for him and made him only the second OSU quarterback to go 3-0 against Michigan, following Tippy Dye.
In his three games versus his archrival, Smith finished with 857 yards passing and seven touchdowns and 194 rushing yards with another two scores.
“The running joke would always be ‘The streets of Columbus would be a lot more cooler when you win this game at the end of the season.’ ” Smith said.
Smith goes into the Hall of Fame with fellow football players Antoine Winfield (1996-98), who won the Thorpe Award in 1998, as well as offensive lineman and national champion Bob Vogel (1960-62) and Ralph Wolf, who was the team MVP in 1936 in 1937.
Other inductees this year include women's hockey star Tessa Bonhomme (2004-05, 2007-08), men's fencer Boaz Ellis (2004-06), women's track and field participants Rosalind Goodwin (2002-05) and Tami Smith (2000-03), men's golfer Ralph Guarasci (1975-78), synchronized swimmer Becky Kim (2004-06, 2009) and men's tennis player Jeremy Wurtzman (2002-04). Coaches being inducted in this year's class include wrestling coach Russ Hellickson (1986-2006) and women's basketball coach Nancy Darsch (1986-97).