Smith, a sophomore starting just his fifth game for the Buckeyes, helped power OSU to a 37-21 upset win over the Big Ten co-champion Wolverines. In that unforgettable performance, Smith accounted for 386 yards total offense – the third highest figure in school history and the most yards ever by an OSU player in the Michigan game.
In that game, Smith completed 13 of 23 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried 18 times for 145 yards and a score. The yardage total left him 1 yard shy of the school single-game record by a quarterback, set by Cornelius Greene with 146 yards against Wisconsin in 1974.
Now, with the 2005 edition of The Game just a day away, Smith said he does not think his success against Michigan will help him in this year's game as the ninth-ranked Buckeyes tackle the 17th-rated Wolverines.
"I don't think about the game a year ago," said Smith, who is now 11-2 as a starting quarterback for the Buckeyes. "This is the year that we're in now. That's in the past. Everything that happened last year is in the past."
Smith went from the highest of highs after the Michigan win to the lowest of lows a month later, when it was revealed that he would miss two games – including the Alamo Bowl – for receiving illegal extra benefits from an OSU booster.
But he paid the price for that mistake. He returned and played in a relief role for the second game of this season, a loss to No. 2-ranked Texas. A week later against San Diego State, Smith regained the starting spot from junior classmate Justin Zwick and he has been a fixture in the lineup ever since.
Smith has improved each week throughout the 2005 season. Going into the regular season finale, he stands sixth nationally (and first in the Big Ten) in passing efficiency. For the year, he is 103 of 172 passing (59.9 percent) for 1,640 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has also carried the ball 112 times for a net of 508 yards and 10 touchdowns.
When asked why he has been so effective this season, Smith said, "I am much more mature within the context of the offense – wanting, knowing and needing that I know I have to learn more. I need to know everybody's role within the offense and I am working hard to master that."
After his success against Michigan last year, Smith realizes the Wolverines will come after him and do their best to contain him. He discussed the tenor of this fabled rivalry.
"It's about taking care of business and sending these 16 seniors out with a bang," Smith said. "It means everything. As a youngster, I sort of took the rivalry for granted. But as soon as I took my first in The Game, I understood what it was all about. This is a huge one. Any time you face that team up north you have to come out with a win.
"The season is long and grueling and hard. But if you do have a great game against that team, everything is going to be A-OK for the rest of the year. We know when we play them, we have to have everything intact. It's going to be a battle and everything is on the line. It's a huge game and something is on the line when we play them."
But playing a position like quarterback, Smith said he can not afford to let his emotion override his better judgment.
"You understand everything that is at stake, but you also have to understand that this is another week of football," he said. "You just have to go out there and execute."
By his own admission, Smith had one of his worst games in OSU's 17-10 loss at Penn State. He had an interception that led directly to a PSU touchdown and also had a late fumble that quashed OSU's comeback bid.
But he has been the driving force behind Ohio State's five-game winning streak, throwing for over 200 yards in four of those games. His efforts culminated in a stellar 298-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Nov. 5 win over Illinois.
OSU head coach Jim Tressel discussed how Smith has made steady progress.
"Troy made a lot of good decisions and we always say that if you start with making good decisions, then usually those other things that we really need to happen have a good chance of coming true," Tressel said. "That involves eliminating turnovers and coming up with some big plays. I thought Troy did an excellent job.
"As you study that film, there were some times where the route we had called or whatever wasn't there and he made the good decision of not to throw it, not to force it, not to have his mind made up in the huddle that it was going to be there and only take what was there."
Early in the season, Tressel prescribed some extra film study for Smith. It was "heavily suggested" that the quarterback put in just a few more post-practice minutes in the film room.
"I would like to think that every day he gains just a little bit more knowledge," Tressel said. "We always talk about the fact that the good player slows the game down so they can make good decisions. And the more you're around something, the more you can slow it down. And you're a little bit more aware of, hey, this is what happens and you slow down and make good decisions and I think he's progressed there."
OSU receivers coach Darrell Hazell added his perspective on Smith's sudden consistency.
"The game is slowing down for him, which is critical," Hazell said. "He is starting to see the field and understand coverages better. He's throwing a much more catchable ball. He's much more confident out there than he was at the early part of the season."
At the same time, Smith's teammates say he has truly taken charge of the offensive huddle.
"He'll get on us if we're not doing well," said OSU senior left guard Rob Sims. "If there was a hole we needed to make and we didn't make it, he'll get on us just like we'd get on ourselves. But most of the time it's been good and we've had fun."
Sims also discussed the reasons why Smith has been more effective over the last several weeks.
"It's just the turnovers," Sims said. "Troy's been playing pretty good ball all year really, but the turnovers may have kind of overshadowed what he's done. If we don't turn the ball over as an offense, we could be in a better situation right now, we could have a lot more points for the year."
Junior split end Santonio Holmes, one of Smith's close friends, has made a case as one of the Big Ten's top receivers because of the way Smith has been able to get him the ball. Smith has hit Holmes for seven of his eight receiving touchdowns this year.
"He's been playing outstanding," Holmes said. "He's been doing all the right things. He's been minimizing the turnovers and just moving the ball effectively down the field and keeping our defense off the field."
By consistently putting up big numbers, Holmes said Smith has dispelled the notion that he is just an athlete playing quarterback.
"When he first started playing, everybody expected him to just run the ball and Justin (Zwick) to throw the ball," Holmes said. "But at the same time, he's capable of putting up 200 or 300 yards passing the ball."
Holmes said he thinks Smith will be prepared for an eager Michigan defense.
"The way they played him last year, I know they're going to come out and try to play him a lot better this year," Holmes said. "They probably underestimated the things he can do. But getting their fill of him last year and watching him all this year, I'm pretty sure they will be well prepared.
"The way he's been playing, these last couple of games is going to carry over right to this one."
Players like Holmes and Sims can only wonder if Smith had been available from the start of the season and fully participated in preseason camp – Tressel held him out of some practices as a disciplinary move – whether things would have gone differently.
"I can say that and I can't say that," Holmes said. "We just had to go with what we had at the time. He made mistakes and it cost us opportunities. But we have to forget about what happened in the past. We have him now, so we just have to look forward to what we have now."
Smith was unable to work his magic completely in the loss to Texas as he still showed some rust.
"I just think he was very excited to get out on the field again," Sims reasoned. "That's probably why he made mistakes in the beginning. But after a while, he got comfortable and started to do the things he needed to do to prepare for the games."
Sims and the rest of the offense watched as Smith put his game back together. Now, after the team has scored 40 or more points in four straight games for the first time since 1995, Sims believes he is ready for the next big challenge.
"Troy's just a competitive guy," Sims said. "He plays every day with the same intensity. Great players play great against Michigan. That's something we carry around here. He's a great player. He went out and played very well last year."
Smith was on the sidelines two years ago in Ann Arbor as OSU's national championship hopes dissipated with a 35-21 loss to the Wolverines. He did not get into that game on offense, but he understands completely what he will face with over 110,000 in the stands at The Big House.
"I'll probably have butterflies because that's a huge game," Smith said. "And we're playing up there. This is the first time I get the chance to be on the field up North. It's going to be huge.
"It's going to be crazy. I totally understand that and I wouldn't have it any other way."