With all of the great skill players that Ohio State has had in recent history, it’s a little hard to believe that quarterback Troy Smith was the last Buckeye to win the Heisman Trophy. If we disregard single-wing tailbacks, Smith is also the only OSU quarterback to harvest his sport’s greatest award. Not Dwayne Haskins in 2018 or Justin Fields in 2019 (or 2020, for that matter) or C.J. Stroud last year. Nor did Ezekiel Elliott win the award in 2014 (his greatest exploits were after the regular season ended after the Heisman was presented) or in 2015. Nor did J.K. Dobbins win it in 2019 or any of the stellar Buckeye wide receivers– ever. We have to go back to 2006, back to Troy Smith.
The 2006 Buckeye season
Let’s face it. If you play on a lousy team, you’re not going to win the Heisman Trophy, regardless of how great your season is. But the 2006 Buckeyes were anything but a lousy team. Jim Tressel’s squad was ranked No. 1 in the country in all of the major preseason polls, and they stayed there all season, all the way until late into the night of January 8, 2007. The Bucks finished 12-1, beating two No. 2 teams during the regular season and losing to another – Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators – in the BCS championship game.
And Troy Smith? Smith was phenomenal. With all of the success of Ohio State passers in the last decade, or so, it’s easy to overlook Smith’s 2006 performance. His 311 passing attempts (over 13 games) might seem modest by today’s standards, but for a Tressel quarterback, they were a lot. And he completed 65% of them for over 2500 yards and 30 touchdowns, against only six interceptions. He wasn’t a typical Buckeye dual-threat QB; no, Troy Smith was a passer, rushing for only 204 yards on 74 carries (including sacks and scrambles).
Sure, Smith had help with the offense. It was a great team with Antonio Pittman at running back (over 1200 rushing yards), supplemented by Chris (Beanie) Wells, who ran for 576. And there was a remarkable stable of receivers for Smith to throw to: Ted Ginn, Jr., Anthony Gonzalez, Brian Robiskie, and Brian Hartline.
When it came time to count the Heisman votes (well before the loss to Florida, mind you), Smith was an easy winner. In fact, his point margin over second-place Darren McFadden, Arkansas running back, was the second largest gap ever, second only to O.J. Simpson’s win in 1968.
Although Smith had a wonderful season and benefitted from playing for the top-ranked team, I believe that he won the Heisman on November 18, when he led his Buckeyes to a 42-39 win over unbeaten and second-ranked Michigan. If he had anything to prove, Smith proved it that afternoon, with the nation watching and the ballots due soon.
The Michigan game
I don’t remember an Ohio State game with as much hype, as much hoopla, as the OSU-Michigan game of 2006. Both teams undefeated. The teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2. A certain shot at the BCS championship for the winner – maybe even a rematch for the loser too, if the outcome was close. The teams were loaded with players named to various All-American squads. For Michigan, there were running back Mike Hart, offensive lineman Jake Long, defensive end LaMarr Woodley, defensive tackle Alan Branch, and defensive back Leon Hall. The Buckeyes could counter with five of their own. In addition to Smith, Alex Boone (OL), Quinn Pitcock (DL), James Laurinaitis (LB), and Ted Ginn, Jr. (WR and returner) were named to various teams. The game was promoted as “The Game of the Century.” An overused term, to be sure, but, actually, this one might have been.
The Wolverines scored a touchdown on their opening possession when Hart ran it in from the one-yard line. Midway through the first quarter, the Buckeyes tied the score with a one-yard pass from Smith to Roy Hall. The first quarter ended with the score knotted 7-7.
The second quarter belonged to Ohio State. Wells broke a 52-yard touchdown run, and it was followed by a long (39 yds.) TD pass from Smith to Ginn, Jr. The Bucks were up 21-7. Each team recorded a passing TD before the half expired. UM’s Adrian Arrington caught a 37-yarder from quarterback Chad Henne, and the shaved-headed Anthony Gonzalez plucked an eight-yard pass for Ohio State. Things looked good at the half: OSU 28, UM 14.
Although the Buckeyes would never relinquish their lead, and although the final stats were heavily in Ohio State’s favor (503-397 total yards, for example), the outcome wasn’t certain until the game clock registered only zeroes.
TTUN picked up ten points in the third quarter on Hart’s second TD and a 39-yard field goal by Garrett Rivas. The Buck lead was cut to four. Then, Pittman scampered for 56 yards and a touchdown. I was breathing a little easier as the third period ended, with OSU up by 11.
But Mike Hart wasn’t finished scoring touchdowns and grabbed another one before a minute was gone in the fourth quarter. With only 5:38 remaining, Brian Robiskie caught a 13-yard TD pass to restore the lead to 11 points.
Then, things got interesting. Henne was adept at dodging the OSU rush and completing short passes – mainly over the middle. The drive was steady, but it took a long time. Since Michigan began the possession with only one timeout remaining, every play was a pass. And Henne completed 10 out of 12, although one was called back for holding. After the Buckeyes sacked Henne on a third and 14, coach Lloyd Carr called his final timeout. It was fourth and 16. The game was on the line. Henne threw deep, and Mario Manningham couldn’t get to the ball. An interference call, however, gave the Wolverines new life at the OSU 41, with 2:47 left to play. Four passes later, tight end Tyler Ecker caught a pass just short of the goal line and ran it in. Henne completed the pass for the two-point conversion, and the score was 42-39 with 2:16 left.
The atmosphere was tense, as everyone across American waited for Michigan’s onside kick. Fortunately, for the Buckeyes, it went directly to the sure-handed Ginn Jr., who fielded it cleanly at the Michigan 48. Running out the clock, only Smith and Pittman touched the ball. Pittman gained nine on the first play and picked up the first down on the third. That did it. Ohio State 42, Michigan 39.
Troy Smith’s game
Simply put, Smith was brilliant. His whole game was strong, but the last TD drive in the fourth quarter was definitive of a Heisman quarterback. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. With his team leading by only four, Smith, in total command, mixed run and pass to cover 83 yards on 11 plays and, most importantly, used up more than five minutes of precious time.
Smith’s final numbers are impressive. He completed nearly 71% of his passes (29 of 41) for 316 yards. He did throw an interception, but he also had four touchdown passes – each to a different receiver. Troy Smith won the “Game of the Century” and would collect his reward for it, in the form of college football’s greatest honor, in just a couple of weeks. It’s been 16 years. It’s time, now, for C.J. Stroud.