First Class

By guiding Ohio State to an impressive victory at Texas, Troy Smith showed he's a quarterback in every regard and the unquestioned leader of the No. 1 team in the land
September 17, 2006

The brawl in theRoyal was down to garbage time. The longest winning streak in Division I-A wason life support, and a handful of orange-clad students were having troublecoping. Safe behind a railing and a line of police at Royal-Memorial Stadium,they shouted insults at the visiting Ohio State Buckeyes, questioning theirmanhood, slandering their mothers and otherwise making fools of themselves. ¶With two minutes left in a game that ended 24--7, the hecklers found themselvesdrowned out by noise from the north end of the stadium. From the 4,000 or soOhio State fans who formed a wedge of scarlet in a sea of burnt orange, thechant arose: "We're Number 1!"

Fans of the 2005national champions, who last saw their Texas Longhorns lose almost two yearsago and had grown accustomed to making that boast themselves, had no reply,just as the Texas defense had no effective answer for Troy Smith. The Buckeyes'senior quarterback alternated between efficient and electrifying last Saturdaynight, completing 17 of 26 passes for 269 yards, with two touchdowns and nointerceptions. The 66-yard scoring drive Smith engineered late in the firsthalf--his perfectly placed 29-yard touchdown pass to wideout Ted Ginn Jr. camewith 16 seconds remaining--basically kneecapped the home team. It provided thewinning margin in this early-season epic between No. 1 (Ohio State) and No. 2(Texas), and a sobering note in the party town of Austin. Only two teams in thelast 27 years have repeated as national champions; the Longhorns are unlikelyto make it three.

With just undertwo minutes left in the first half, redshirt freshman quarterback Colt McCoyhad tied the game at seven with a two-yard strike to wide receiver BillyPittman. That was as good as it got for McCoy. Smith answered with the sublimerainbow to Ginn, putting the Buckeyes up for good and killing the buzz Texashad hoped to take into intermission.

The Longhorns wonthe national title thanks largely to the sorcery of Vince Young, the uniquelygifted, dual-threat quarterback now with the Tennessee Titans. While it'stempting to say that Smith gave Texas a taste of Young's medicine (lastSeptember the Longhorns kick-started their championship drive with a 25--22 winin Columbus), it's not completely accurate. While Smith rushed 218 times for950 yards in 2004 and '05, he has carried the ball just eight times in twogames this season for a grand total of minus-14 yards.

The fact is, heis not particularly eager to display his running skills. He would much rathershowcase his throwing ability. "No exaggeration, he's got one of the bestarms I've ever seen--a cannon," marvels OSU flanker Anthony (Gonzo)Gonzalez. "But he still has incredible touch."

Beyond that,Smith hasn't really needed to run. Against Texas the mere expectation that hewould take off was enough to cause the Longhorns to focus much of theirdefensive preparation on stopping that threat. Five days before the game, therewas Texas co--defensive coordinator Gene Chizik describing in detail the"great running game package" Ohio State had concocted for number 10:Smith running the option; Smith spearheading what Chizik described as theBuckeyes' "quarterback power game."

Instead Chizik'scharges found themselves faced with a quarterback who is empowered by airingthe ball out. This is a guy who was recruited as a great athlete rather than aquarterback. In '03 he was invited to return kickoffs; in '04 he was asked tolearn the wide receiver position. He is a proud young man who wants to bethought of as a quarterback--not a running quarterback or an"athlete."

Whenever he wasasked last week to compare himself with Young, Smith would flinch almostimperceptibly, then answer by not answering. "He's a great guy, but I playfor a totally different team," he said on one occasion. "He's six-six,I'm six-one," he said on another, inadvertently spotting the formerLonghorn an extra inch. Smith dodged the question because there was no upsidein answering it truthfully, in saying something along the lines of: I'm betterat getting through my progressions. And when I do release the ball, I have amore fluid motion and throw a better, more accurate deep ball--make that a moreaccurate ball, period--than he ever will.

The intangibleshared by Young and Smith is what Ohio State coach Jim Tressel describes simplyas "a command"--the ability to exude and instill confidence andcertainty, no matter how dire the situation. a half hour before kickoff, a manwhose ensemble included white shoes, white shorts and a scarlet-and-whitecape--he identified himself as Buck-I-Guy--stood at the railing behind theTexas bench and made a series of proclamations: "This is the game of thecentury! This is Ali-Frazier! You've heard of the Thrilla in Manila--thishere's the Brawl in the Royal!"

Truth be told,the Brawl was more Holyfield-Bowe than Ali-Frazier. Things never got especiallydire for the Buckeyes. McCoy's first pass of the second half was intercepted byJames Laurinaitis, a ball-hawking sophomore linebacker whose father could havetaught Buck-I-Guy a thing or two about outlandish getups. In the '80s and '90s,Joe Laurinaitis worked the pro wrestling circuit as Animal, one half of the tagteam known as the Road Warriors.

It was theyounger Laurinaitis, a former high school hockey player from Hamel, Minn., andone of nine new starters on Ohio State's defense, who punched the ball from thegrasp of Pittman near the Buckeyes' goal line late in the first quarter of ascoreless game. The fumble was gathered in by cornerback Donald Washington, whoreturned it to midfield.

Smith needed onlyfive plays to get his team in the end zone and complete the momentum-turning14-point swing. Notable about that sequence: Every one of the 57 yards gainedon the possession was through the air--by Gonzalez, whose third catch of thedrive was a 14-yard touchdown reception. To shake cornerback Brandon Foster,Gonzo used what is known as a double-move: one fake followed by another. Hedidn't need the second move to beat Foster, who was having a tough day at theoffice.

Beyond the eastside of the stadium, visible from the bleachers, is an elevated freeway. It isI-35, the very artery upon which deputies from the Travis County sheriff'sdepartment had made three noteworthy arrests earlier in the week. Just shy ofthree in the morning on Labor Day, deputies observed a white 2003 Mercury"swerving from lane to lane," according to the affidavit filed by oneof the arresting officers. After pulling the car over, officers observed thatone of its passengers was asleep in the backseat with a gun in his lap.

That slumberingindividual allegedly packing heat was Tarell Brown, who happens to be theLonghorns' best cover corner--the guy who was slated to spend Saturday nightmatched up against Ginn. Instead, he was, in order: 1) Tasered by the deputies,who were put on edge by the presence of that 9-mm; 2) charged with unlawfullycarrying a weapon and possession of marijuana (officers found what wasdescribed as a "marijuana 'blunt' cigar" in the car); and 3) suspendedfrom the Ohio State game by coach Mack Brown, along with fellow passenger andbackup safety Tyrell Gatewood.

Both playerspassed drug tests, and the marijuana charges were dropped four days later. (Thedope, it turned out, belonged to the driver, former Texas linebacker AaronHarris, who is being charged.) But the handgun charge against Brown was leftstanding, as was Brown's suspension from the Longhorns' biggest game of theregular season. (Brown and Gatewood were reinstated on Monday.)

While it'simpossible to say how much the senior's absence hurt Texas, it certainly didn'thelp. Lining up across from Ginn was cornerback Aaron Ross. Chizik usuallyrolled a safety to that side, giving Ross deep help. Without that same help,the cornerback on the other side of the field--Foster, normally a backup--wasforced to give Gonzo a massive cushion. "I had free rein to do things forabout 10 yards," said Gonzalez, who finished with eight catches for 142yards. "That makes things a lot easier."

Beloved byBuckeyes fans for his clutch catches in Ohio State's victories over Michigan in'04 and '05, Gonzo was nonetheless overshadowed by Ginn and Santonio Holmes, afirst-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers last spring. It was afamiliar role: Gonzalez's older brothers, Nick and Joe, were also starathletes. Nick played baseball at UNC-Greensboro; Joe was a defensive back atIndiana.

"We playedbaseball in the backyard every day," recalls Joe, who made the trip fromthe family's hometown of Avon Lake, Ohio, to Austin along with the youngestGonzalez sibling, Cristina. "Anthony would beg to play. We would let him,but we wouldn't count his hits or runs."

Anthony wasphilosophical about those injustices; he is now a junior majoring in philosophyand prelaw. Joe calls him "a brainiac"--a description that squares withthe performance Gonzo put on in the post-game interview area, where he pointedout that the depth of the safeties "allowed our [pass] routes tomature"; and shared with reporters his ambition to be accepted intoStanford Law School.

While hissiblings sometimes tease their cerebral brother, they also appreciate him."He makes you think a different way," says Cristina.

He certainly madethe Longhorns think a different way: Maybe we shouldn't be giving this guy a10-yard cushion on every play. as the clock bled out the final minutes, theBuckeyes' sideline became boisterous. Safeties coach Paul Haynes turned to agroup of defensive linemen and shouted, with incredulity, "All they got wasseven! Seven points!"

When it was overSmith ranged all over the field, embracing Longhorns, wishing them luck therest of the way. Said Texas defensive end Brian Robison, "That's a classyguy."

The same must besaid of the Longhorns, whose comportment in defeat called to mind--Gonzo wouldappreciate this--Aristotle's words: "The beauty of the soul shines out whena man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another."

The odds are nowexcellent that college football will crown a new champion come January. That'sa harsh toke for Texas, but a good thing for everyone else. Aristotle also hadthis to say: "Change in all things is sweet."

POWER RANKINGS

How far will Texas fall? Where will Notre Dame end up?Find out in Stewart Mandel's rankings at SI.com/collegefootball.

"He's got one of the best arms I've ever seen--ACANNON," Gonzalez says of Smith. "But he still has incredibletouch."

PHOTOPeter Read MillerPERFECT 10 Smith threw for a pair of touchdowns and didn't turn the ball over, while Jay Richardson (opposite) and the Buckeyes' defense roared. PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL FRAKESPLAYMAKER Laurinaitis had a hand in both Texas turnovers, including the interception that set up a third-quarter field goal. PHOTOBOB ROSATORECEIVING END Gonzalez had made big catches in big games, but he had a breakout night against a depleted Texas secondary.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)