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First Class
September 18, 2006
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
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September 18, 2006

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

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

Fans of the 2005 national champions, who last saw their Texas Longhorns lose almost two years ago 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 Saturday night, completing 17 of 26 passes for 269 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The 66-yard scoring drive Smith engineered late in the first half--his perfectly placed 29-yard touchdown pass to wideout Ted Ginn Jr. came with 16 seconds remaining--basically kneecapped the home team. It provided the winning 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 the last 27 years have repeated as national champions; the Longhorns are unlikely to make it three.

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

The Longhorns won the national title thanks largely to the sorcery of Vince Young, the uniquely gifted, dual-threat quarterback now with the Tennessee Titans. While it's tempting to say that Smith gave Texas a taste of Young's medicine (last September the Longhorns kick-started their championship drive with a 25--22 win in Columbus), it's not completely accurate. While Smith rushed 218 times for 950 yards in 2004 and '05, he has carried the ball just eight times in two games this season for a grand total of minus-14 yards.

The fact is, he is not particularly eager to display his running skills. He would much rather showcase his throwing ability. "No exaggeration, he's got one of the best arms 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 he would take off was enough to cause the Longhorns to focus much of their defensive preparation on stopping that threat. Five days before the game, there was 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 the Buckeyes' "quarterback power game."

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

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

The intangible shared by Young and Smith is what Ohio State coach Jim Tressel describes simply as "a command"--the ability to exude and instill confidence and certainty, no matter how dire the situation. a half hour before kickoff, a man whose ensemble included white shoes, white shorts and a scarlet-and-white cape--he identified himself as Buck-I-Guy--stood at the railing behind the Texas bench and made a series of proclamations: "This is the game of the century! This is Ali-Frazier! You've heard of the Thrilla in Manila--this here's the Brawl in the Royal!"

Truth be told, the Brawl was more Holyfield-Bowe than Ali-Frazier. Things never got especially dire for the Buckeyes. McCoy's first pass of the second half was intercepted by James Laurinaitis, a ball-hawking sophomore linebacker whose father could have taught 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 tag team known as the Road Warriors.

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