It was just one year ago when Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith was the subject of scorn and ridicule after his two-game suspension for accepting $500 in illegal extra benefits from an OSU booster. Smith missed last year's Alamo Bowl win over Oklahoma State as a result.
But Smith regained his eligibility as well as his starting spot from Justin Zwick and went out Monday night against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, intent on capping one of the finest seasons turned in by an OSU quarterback in recent memory.
Smith completed 19 of 28 passes for a career-high 342 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 64 yards in OSU's 34-20 pounding of Notre Dame.
"Sitting out last year's bowl game, I didn't think about that as much as you probably think I did," Smith said after being named the Fiesta Bowl offensive MVP. "Today, this year's group of guys on the field was the most important thing, sending them out with a victory.
"Going home on the plane, that's a long plane ride. I would rather go home happy than sad. You just go out and try and execute the best you can as a team. I don't like taking a lot of credit for what's going on out there."
Smith ended the game with 408 yards in total offense, the most-ever for a Buckeye in a bowl game, surpassing the 330 yards by Steve Bellisari against South Carolina in the 2002 Outback Bowl.
"It's important to me," Smith said of the win that helped OSU wrap up a 10-2 season. "But I don't like to focus on me. It's a team effort. It takes 22 people – 11 on offense and 11 on defense -- to get it done.
"It doesn't matter to me. I think what matters to me is as long as people respect our offense as a whole."
This was the sixth time this season Smith eclipsed 200 yards passing. He ended the year completing 149 of 237 passes (62.9 percent) for 2,282 yards and 16 touchdowns against four interceptions. Smith is now 13-2 in his career as a starter and has 24 career TDs against seven interceptions. This year, he also carried the ball 136 times for a net of 611 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He becomes the first Ohio State quarterback to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 500 yards in the same season.
Count OSU coach Jim Tressel among the many impressed with Smith's development.
"I think as you watch Troy throughout his career, every day in practice he learns a little something and gets better," Tressel said. "Every game, he learns from the game and studies extremely hard. He and (quarterbacks coach Joe) Daniels, they worked like crazy preparing themselves for the game. He's very passionate about being a great quarterback.
"Each day, he's taking a step closer to it. We know we've got a lot of work to do yet, but I know he wants it."
Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was concerned that Smith would impact the game with his running.
"It was my biggest fear going into the game," Weis said. "Sure enough, here it is, the first third down of the game, and he runs for it on third down. That's one of the biggest problems we had – we couldn't get off the field.
"He didn't disappoint. His best football is ahead of him. He's definitely on the rise."
And what Smith didn't get done on the ground, he and his teammates did with big plays. He found a wide open Ted Ginn Jr. for a 56-yard touchdown. Then, after Ginn ripped off a breathtaking 68-yard touchdown run on a reverse, Smith's 85-yard touchdown bomb to Santonio Holmes staked the Buckeyes to a 21-7 halftime lead. Tailback Antonio Pittman, bottled up most of the night, capped the scoring with a 60-yard touchdown burst on a sweep with 1:46 remaining.
"I was disappointed in the number of big plays we gave up," Weis said. "If they're nickel and diming you and getting 5 or 10 yards, you can live with it and say they're physically kicking your butt. But when you give up that many big plays, that is disappointing."
Smith set up Pittman's game clinching run with a pair of third down conversions that could not have been any bigger. The Buckeyes were clinging to a 27-20 lead and were just hoping to run out the clock. Facing third-and-9 from the OSU 16, Tressel took a chance and called a pass play. Smith dumped the ball off to Pittman, who rumbled for 10 yards and a fresh set of downs with 4:26 left.
Then, OSU faced third-and-11 from its own 25. Again, Tressel rolled the dice with a pass call. Smith, who had lost a fumble earlier in the game with a scramble, was able to spin out of danger and find Anthony Gonzalez for an 15-yard gain and a first down with 2:21 left.
That conversion left OSU a sparking 8 of 12 on third down for the game. Pittman's long touchdown run did in the shell-shocked Fighting Irish, who surrendered 617 yards total offense, on the next play.
"I was just keeping it alive," Smith said of his scramble on the third-and-11 play. "A team that is above or just at 50 percent can lead the whole nation in third down conversion. I was just trying to keep it alive any way I could and just keep it going."
The passing combination of Smith to Ginn could be a lethal one next season. They hooked up for nine passes in the win over Michigan. Then, against Notre Dame, they connected eight times for 167 yards and a score.
But Smith bids farewell to his favorite target and good friend, Holmes, who had five catches for 124 yards and a score in the game and then declared for the NFL draft afterwards. Holmes paid tribute to the quarterback who, possibly, has helped him become a first-round draft choice.
"He's been doing it all season," Holmes said. "I've been sticking by his side and congratulating him. I think the extra film time he took to study was big for him."
Pittman, who finished with 136 yards on 21 carries against ND and eclipsed the 1,300-yard mark for the season, also took his hat off to Smith.
"I'm very confident in Troy," Pittman said. "When something breaks down, he's able to run. When he takes off, everybody pursues on him and he's able to dump it off a lot."
Tressel said the hours of preparation Smith put in and his immense athletic ability are paying huge dividends.
"The key to any great performance is your key players have to know how to make plays," Tressel said. "Troy has a great command of our offense. He's old school and he knows what we need to do. When it doesn't go just right, he can improvise. He can adjust and he's very competitive."
But Smith, as he always seems to do, shared the joy with those around him.
"I think it starts up front," he said. "Without the guys up front bearing down and settling in for four quarters to get the job done, none of this happens. Two, was the execution of the game plan. We set out to do the things we needed to do, assert ourselves, make big plays and complete the deep passes. Everything was accomplished today."