To become the best quarterback he could be, Troy Smith and Ohio State's coaching staff decided he needed to remove something from his game: his propensity to run the football. Last year, Smith was one of the top rushing quarterbacks in the nation and finished with 611 rushing yards (4.5 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns.
Even in just five games as a starter in 2004, Smith had 339 rushing yards (4.1) and two touchdowns.
But this year, as the clear frontrunner for the Heisman, Smith is letting the other talented Buckeyes worry about running with the football. The 6-1, 215-pound Smith has just 126 rushing yards (3.5) and zero touchdowns two-thirds of the way through the season.
Of course, his passing stats are through the roof (1,715 yards, 67.9 completion percentage, 21 touchdowns, two interceptions) and he is fourth in the nation in passing efficiency with a rating of 176.35.
And just imagine what Smith's statistics would look like if he was playing more in the fourth quarter of games. But due to the Buckeyes' seemingly weekly blowouts, Smith is usually taking off his pads and joking around with teammates by the time the final stanza rolls around.
"I guess one way I would have to say that I've changed is not taking as many blows and things like that downfield," Smith said. "That can definitely take a toll on your body through the course of a season. Not saying that's nothing that I wouldn't sacrifice for my teammates, but understanding that I have guys around me that are some of the best athletes in the nation and on any given play they can run three or four times faster than I could with the ball in my hands. So, I'm just trying to spread the ball around and get it to as many guys who do what they do best and that's run and make plays."
Smith has an outstanding wide receiver corps at his disposal – led by juniors Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr. One of the good things about the group is that Smith rarely hears the wideouts campaigning for more balls thrown their way.
Gonzalez (38 receptions, 591 yards, 6 TD) and Ginn (41 receptions, 589 yards, 7 TD) have very similar numbers this year. But Smith says he doesn't consciously think about getting them equal touches, it just works out that way.
"I would have to say it's just a tremendous credit to my staff because they design the plays and they draw the plays up for at times perfect execution," Smith said. "Once you drop back and you make a mental decision to do something that not designed within the play, then that's something that you mess up. So, they design the plays so they work. If one's not there then go to two. If two's not there then go to three. If three's not there then we check it down to a tailback or fullback. The offensive line does a great job with holding their blocks and doing what they do best and I just try and distribute the ball."
Smith talked more about the 6-0, 195-pound Gonzalez and how their relationship has evolved over the years.
"Some of the first things I can recollect with Gonzalez is I would have to throw a deep post route where he would run by everybody," Smith said. "I told him, when he first got here, and it was just locker room talk and just playing around. I told him that his first touchdown would be a deep post. Sure enough, guess what it was against Michigan (in 2004).
"His number got called and he made a great play. But our friendship is probably just as tight as everybody else on the team. Gonzo is probably one of the most intelligent people you can talk to. He's one of the most humble and loving guys you can be around."
Smith and Gonzalez each grew up in the Cleveland area. Gonzalez went to St. Ignatius High School and Smith started off at rival St. Edward before transferring to Glenville.
"One of my distinct memories of Gonzalez in high school was we had a tailback at St. Ed's who was pretty fast in Raishaun Stover," Smith recalled. "No matter how hard Raishaun tried, he could never beat Gonzalez in the 100 or the 200. The looks on his face were just … he'd be grunting and straining and trying to beat him. Gonzalez would be in the next lane just as calm and as smooth as possible. He would beat him every time. I couldn't understand how, but now I see."
But as tight as Smith and Gonzalez have become, Smith and Ginn are like brothers. Smith discussed the emotions that will be involved when he thinks about playing his final two games in Ohio Stadium with Ginn and the rest of his teammates.
"It's sad for me because this situation with this group of guys we will probably never be together again like this – wearing these numbers that we wear and celebrating and playing these teams we play. It will never be like this again.
"It's a sad thing because year in and year out for five years I've watched our seniors say the same thing. It sounded like a cliché for a while, but now it is really starting to touch close to home."
Smith knows top-ranked OSU still needs to get past Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern before the showdown with No. 2 Michigan on Nov. 18. But most of the talk is already about the Wolverines and how the winner will play in the BCS championship game.
"I don't think it's tough to stay focused because regardless of what it is, everybody is going to be looking forward to something," Smith said. "No one is going to be on the same page at all times and the kids that we have in this program are the ones that make it go around. Sometimes you are going to get people that are going to try and sway you a different way, but as long as you stay wrapped up in everything that going on with your teammates, then that's how I think we rise to the top in any occasion."
Smith was asked by a national writer for his thoughts on being the leader in the Heisman race.
"Things like that, it's definitely flattering to think about and sometimes talk about, but as of right now the focus is on finishing out the season," Smith said. "That's something hard to do, I don't care which conference to play in, it's hard if you start off strong, or start of moderate, whatever you want to say, to finish that exact same way. So, that's what my focus and my team's focus is right now."
4.7 Yards And A Cloud Of Dust
The Buckeyes are averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season, but are not satisfied with their rushing production. They had their best rushing output of the season against Indiana last week with 270 yards, but center Doug Datish wants more.
"Running the football was the big point of emphasis last week and we worked on that all week," Datish said. "We didn't run the ball as much as I thought we would going into it, but we still got a lot of yards and our backs did a good job.
"There's always room to get better and against Michigan State we didn't run the ball very well. Last week we kind of got that on track and we threw the ball good too. There's tons of ways we can get better and we've just got to keep working on it."
Another point of emphasis for OSU's offense is being more productive on its first possession of the game to send a message and get an early lead.
"I don't know what our problem is on the first drive, but that's something we can definitely get better at," Datish said. "We need to come out and show a team what today is going to be all about and hopefully we can go out and do that."
Datish gave his take on a shaky Minnesota defense that is ranked ninth in the Big Ten and 97th in the country, giving up 390.1 yards per game.
"I think they're pretty good," Datish said. "They're tough kids and they play hard and they don't give up, that's for sure. They are Big Ten football players and you can't take anybody lightly. They're good. There's a bunch of kids from Columbus, Ohio, on that team and when you get to play in the ‘Shoe in Ohio, you're honored. I'm sure they are really looking forward to it and I think they are going to come here and give us a great game."
Added tailback Antonio Pittman: "They've got a lot of guys from Columbus and their families are going to be up here watching them play and nothing would make them happier than having success.
"From playing against them last year, they have more experience in the secondary this year. They had a couple guys last year that came up and played the run heavy. Dominic (Jones from Columbus Brookhaven) moved from safety to corner and we expect him to come up a lot. They have a good defense. Their linebackers aren't too heavy, but they can run and that's the key thing on them. We've just got to battle."
Pittman scored his first touchdowns of the 2005 season against Minnesota last year, including a 67-yarder. It ended a seven-game streak without a trip to paydirt.
"Hopefully I will break another big one," Pittman said. "That was my longest run of my career here and hopefully I can get another one like that."
Smith felt that too much was made of Pittman's touchdown drought last year.
"I can't say he hard a hard time getting into the end zone," Smith said. "He would do tremendous things going all the way down to the 5- or 10-yard line. Sometimes, he would get spelled. I guess when he broke that long one, he was tired of getting us down there and not getting us into the end zone."