That was Sept. 29, 2012, the last time Ohio State played at Michigan State. In the first road game of the Urban Meyer era the Buckeyes were down 13-10 in the third quarter and needed a big play. Smith was ready to make it, and his 63-yard touchdown gave the Buckeyes a 17-13 edge, one they wouldn’t relinquish on their way to a 17-16 win over the Spartans, Meyer’s first over a ranked opponent at Ohio State.
"It's up there," Smith said when ranking the play among the best he's had at Ohio State. "I think being able to make a play for my team at that moment, the way the season was kind of going it gave us a big momentum shift and we finished the season strong. I really think that helped the team."
That game is credited as kicking off a new age in Buckeye football and combined with last year’s Big Ten Championship Game adds another level to this weekend’s already layered matchup. In a way that play signified the arrival of Smith.
The Massillon, Ohio, native played in every game of his freshman year, finishing 2011 with 14 receptions for 294 yards and four touchdowns. The biggest of those catches was a 40-yard score in the final seconds against Wisconsin to secure a 33-29 win. That flashed the big-play ability Smith has had since he stepped on campus, but it would be hard to anoint anyone on that dysfunctional 2011 team that finished 6-7 as having arrived.
The Michigan State game in 2012, however, did the trick. Smith had 17 catches for 272 yards and two touchdowns in four games leading up to the contest with the Spartans that season, but the big play in East Lansing showed Smith could be a down field weapon against the best teams on the Buckeye schedule.
He followed that up with a strong junior season, hauling in 44 balls for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. All of those were second-best on the team and he entered this season with by-far the best career numbers of any of the Buckeyes' receivers. Smith, however, has drifted back into the pack a bit his senior year.
He enters the game against Michigan State third in receptions with 16 and second in yards with 435. His seven touchdowns does lead the team, but there are simply more receiving threats around Smith than there ever have been in his career.
“He's our down-field threat, does a very good job on that as well,” Meyer said. “He's adapted well. I'm not sure how much his role has changed other than the fact that we had no one else a couple of years ago. That was the biggest difference. Now we have a variety of different body types and skill sets that we try to utilize.”
Smith has been willing to do the little things as a senior, including playing a key role on special teams as Meyer called him the best gunner in the country. He validated that praise against Penn State when he used his burning speed to down a punt at the 1-yard line.
With those around him emerging, it would be easy for Smith to be upset about not being The Guy his senior season. He’s still the teams marquee big-play receiver, but Dontre Wilson and Michael Thomas have each caught passes of 40 or more yards, so he’s not alone in that area either. Smith is on pace for 16 fewer catches than he had last season.
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Smith has handled it all well.
“I think when there is depth, especially at a skilled offensive position, the ball can only be touched so many times throughout the course of a game,” Herman said. “I think he realizes that in the best interest of our offense that’s a really good thing. I think on a personal level that gets frustrating. I think he wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t, we’re all human.
“I think he’s done a great job of understanding that for us to win football games the way we need to win them we have to have everybody involved and there are only so many balls to be caught and be touched. He’s OK with it.”
There may be opportunities for Smith to be the guy against Michigan State once again. The Spartans have allowed 19 plays of 30 yards or more this season, nearly as many as they allowed all of last year. Smith is tied for ninth in the country with eight receptions of 30 yards or more. In his career he has caught 25 touchdowns and those have covered 36.8 yards on average.
Smith knows he will need to be a factor Saturday.
"That's key to take shots and try to loosen them up a little," Smnith said, "try to expose their (defensive backs) a little bit."
When Smith hauled in the laser from Miller in East Lansing in 2012 he solidified himself as the guy on that Ohio State team. Since then he has continued to excel as a deep threat, but has seen his peers produce at equal or greater rates. This Saturday, 770 days since he caught that ball at the Spartans' 30-yard line and raced to the end zone, perhaps he will be the guy yet again.