Under normal circumstances, the performance in question would not have been a milestone in any quarterback's Heisman campaign. A stat line of 12/22 for 115 yards and one touchdown against two interceptions is mediocre at best, and unproductive at worst. Adding his three carries for 18 yards on the ground would not have helped distinguish the day for Ohio State's Troy Smith.
Nevertheless, this game is one that vaulted Smith to the top of the Heisman discussion, a perch that he never vacated on his way to becoming the sixth Buckeye player to take home the most coveted trophy in college sports. The vault occurred on one play, a 37-yard touchdown pass to receiver Brian Robiskie in the third quarter that gave OSU a 14-3 lead and broke open a defensive struggle between two of the better teams in the Big Ten Conference.
As I mentioned last week, Penn State and Ohio State finished the 2005 season ranked #3 and #4, respectively. The loss at State College had been particularly bitter for Buckeye fans, because it seemed like such a winnable game. But the Lions, fueled by a raucous crowd in full white out frenzy, shut down OSU's offense for much of the game and thwarted their final drive by sacking Smith and forcing a fumble to effectively end the contest.
And so, as the 2006 Ohio State team won their first three games and ascended to the #1 ranking in both polls, the game in Columbus against those same Nittany Lions loomed large. Once again the defense would be tough, the yards and points hard to come by. But this Buckeye squad had something going for them that the 2005 team did not when they entered Beaver Stadium: the confidence that comes from beating a good team on the road, and that extra swagger that comes from doing it in a dominating fashion.
Ohio State had a record of 3-0 going in, but sandwiched in between home games against relative softies Northern Illinois and Cincinnati was a road contest against Texas, the second game in a home-and-home that had begun with a classic at Ohio Stadium the previous year. The eventual BCS champion Longhorns had beaten Ohio State 25-22 then, but in the return engagement the Buckeyes had paid them back with interest, clubbing the Horns on their home turf 24-7.
Smith had been superb in the victory, completing 17/27 for 269 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. In fact, dating back to the previous season, Smith had thrown 151 straight passes without an interception. And it's not as if he had been playing it safe during that time either. OSU's passing game was in high gear during the second half of 2005 on the strength of outstanding receivers Santonio Holmes, Ted Ginn Jr., and Anthony Gonzales. Holmes had departed for the NFL, but newcomer Robiskie had adjusted quickly to the college game and was an able complement to the deadly duo of Ginn and Gonzales.
Overall, the Ohio State offense was rolling along prior to the meeting with Penn State, as veteran rusher Antonio Pittman was continuing his fine work from the previous season and freshman stud Chris "Beanie" Wells was adding some extra punch to the attack. Smith himself was a threat to run, although more and more he tended to distribute the ball to his teammates, thus making the offense less predictable and more difficult to stop.
For their part, the Nittany Lions were prepared for what they knew would be a great challenge, but they were not the team that they had been in 2005. This was in evidence as they fell in week 2 on the road at Notre Dame by a score of 41-17. That game was not even as close as the score made it appear, as the Lions scored two garbage touchdowns late in the fourth quarter after the Irish had gone up 41-3.
Still, Penn State came into the game determined not to get run over again, and it showed almost immediately. On Ohio State's first possession, Troy Smith completed a short pass to Robiskie for a first down at the OSU 32. But then he tried to go deep to Ginn and was intercepted at the Penn State 25 by cornerback Justin King. This halted Smith's streak at 152 passes and got the offense off to a sluggish start.
The Lions would give it right back six plays later, and thus it went for most of the first half. Rain was coming down and it would continue for most of the day. The turf at Ohio Stadium was in bad shape, and the rain made it even worse. The two offenses slushed around for 30 minutes and the net result was a 3-0 Penn State lead going into halftime.
Even stranger than the weather or the score, was the spectacle of Penn State head coach Joe Paterno making a beeline for the locker room midway through the second quarter. It was later reported that he had the flu and was, shall we say, indisposed for much of the game. He finally returned to the sideline at the start of the fourth quarter, and it was just in time to see the play of the game.
Ohio State had grabbed the lead early in the third quarter with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by a 12-yard run from Pittman. The previous drive had ended on another Smith interception, but the OSU defense stiffened and the Lions missed a 42-yard field goal and so OSU had dodged the bullet. Penn State would not be so fortunate.
Getting the ball back at their own 39 with 1:45 left in the third, the Buckeyes began a march down the field that would carry into the fourth. As Paterno re-entered the field area, OSU began the quarter on the PSU 44-yard line. Two plays later, they faced a second-and-nine at the Lions' 37. Smith dropped back to pass, rolled to his right to escape pressure, and then spun back around to the left and began scanning the field again. He spotted Robiskie breaking from right to left and fired a rainbow pass down the middle, hitting the receiver in stride as he crossed into the end zone.
The resulting touchdown gave the Buckeyes a two score lead in the fourth quarter of a defensive struggle on a sloppy field. The play would be shown repeatedly on highlights of the game later, and the poise and determination shown by Smith would create a buzz that grew into a roar by season's end. That one 37-yard pass would be the shot heard round the college football world, a desperate heave that landed perfectly in the center of Troy Smith's Heisman résumé.
Paterno's indigestion did not improve when, with his team trailing 14-6 later in the quarter, his quarterback Anthony Morelli tossed a pair of interceptions, both of which the Buckeyes took to the house. On the first one, Malcolm Jenkins picked off Morelli at the OSU 39 and raced down the left sideline to pay dirt, possibly spiking the ball early at the one-yard line (replays were inconclusive). On the next PSU possession, Antonio Smith intercepted Morelli at the OSU 45 and took off down the exact same path traveled by Jenkins for another score. Just like that the Lions trailed 28-6 with just over a minute left in the game.
Symbolically waving the white flag (the best version of "white out" I can imagine), Paterno replaced Morelli with Daryll Clark and he ran out the rest of the clock. The Buckeyes advanced to 4-0 and retained their #1 ranking. Penn State went to 2-2 but they would eventually rebound to finish a respectable 8-4 for the regular season, good enough to earn an Outback Bowl berth against Tennessee. PSU would defeat the Volunteers 20-10 in one of those Big Ten over SEC games that supposedly never happens.