The Invisible Man

By Ramzy Nasrallah on June 1, 2022 at 1:15 pm
devin smith after the winning touchdown against wisconsin in 2011

No one brutalized the Wisconsin Badgers quite as efficiently as Devin Smith.

He caught 13 passes against them, averaging north of 20 yards per catch with five going for touchdowns. If you were Wisconsin and Smith was holding the football, you were sad.

Ohio State went 4-0 against the Badgers over Smith's four years. Yesterday I was reminded of his first reception against them, which did not happen until the 60th minute of their first meeting.

Favorite memory in The Shoe a huge category for seasoned fans. Smith's first-ever Wisconsin reception is in that conversation for me. But first, we have to define memory - is it a whole game, a whole play, a player, a day, a season?

Let's install a micro-category. My favorite three seconds in The Shoe. Let's get narrow.

My three seconds are on par with any others I've enjoyed in Ohio Stadium over the decades. Three seconds that prevented that lost 2011 season from being a total, miserable bust.

fair catch

In the absence of context it's just a coverage bust; no one should ever be that open. But Smith's first-ever catch against Wisconsin was so much more than a 40-yard TD pass.

He appeared like an apparition out of nowhere in the middle of the play. A surprise twist, a glimmer of hope and a moment of joy in a season that would only deliver lousy endings.

Unless you're watching an all-22 feed, TV broadcasts limit the ability to see who downfield passes are targeting. That evening, 103,000 people were packed in the stadium. On that play, Ohio State's number 15 was invisible to every one of us except for Ohio State's number five.

We just did not see him. We were in the stadium but we were as blind as the TV audience.

I was behind the Wisconsin bench on the 50-yard line at field level, which puts me in the highlight but also in Braxton Miller's scrambling path. Like everyone else, I was locked on him and just assumed as he ran toward me he was heading toward the sideline to stop the clock.

No one could be faulted for failing to see Smith wandering alone downfield. Seven games into his tenure, See Braxton Run was not only Ohio State's 2011 offense, it was a rare good thing. If he was the ballcarrier there was no reason to be looking anywhere else.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba had more catches against Utah in the 2022 Rose Bowl than Devin Smith - Ohio State's receptions leader - had during the entire 2011 season.

But then he abruptly heaved the ball across his body with every bit of strength and desperation that he had. The game clock showed 0:24. When it landed in Smith's hands, it read 0:21.

Those three seconds captured a range of emotions that was impossible to process in the moment, but that's why hindsight is so helpful. The first emotion was dread. We were steeped in it.

Not only is throwing a pass across the body while running in the opposite direction one of football's most reckless sins (fielding a punt inside the 10, fumbling, not knowing where the 1st down marker is, poor clock management, there are others) but Ohio State's downfield passing game in 2011 didn't inspire any confidence whatsoever.

Even perfect form was dicey. Ohio State's offensive staff left a lot to be desired, so leaning on natural talent felt like the best strategy. This meant Miller keeping and running the ball inspired confidence. Jim Bollman's passing offense did not.

If you're not grasping just how dire it was, Jaxon Smith-Njigba had more catches against Utah in the 2022 Rose Bowl than Ohio State's receptions leader had over the entire 2011 season. And Braxton was not only throwing with the game on the line, he was doing it the way you're absolutely never supposed to do it.

He had seen something downfield right as he crossed the 44-yard line and just went for it. This was the moment that dread flashed. Unlike previous eras of Ohio State football, in 2011 only two things could happen when the Buckeyes threw the ball - and both of them were bad.

oh shit look at devin all by himself

Yeah, no idea to what or whom he's throwing. Wisconsin's defense didn't know either.

Everyone's eyes left Braxton to follow the trajectory of what was a classic arm-punt, screaming skyward as desperation heaves across the body generally flutter. Only then did anyone see to whom the ball was heading.

Smith had been invisible to everyone in the building and watching on TV. Braxton saw him first.

He was in a slight back-pedal, facing the rest of his team. Smith had breached a cinematic frontier of wide-openness that rarely occurs outside of football movies. Only the invisible or fictitious are able to elude defenders like this. He's Lucas Blye at the end of Lucas.

It is what separates this play from Holy Buckeye, 85 Yards or the Brooklyn Dagger. I spent too much time trying to remember any another play in my lifetime that carried similar consequences along with the utter shock of a player just appearing out of thin air to score a game-winning touchdown.

The closest I could muster was Will Allen's interception to end the 2002 Michigan game. Three immaculate seconds, but there's no shocking twist to be found there. This was different.

With Braxton's heave in flight for a long second, our next emotion is shock. Verbal Kint was Kaiser Soze. Soylent Green was people. Tyler Durden wasn't real. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.

the forgotten man

In the depressing run-up to this moment, the Buckeyes had already taken three losses before October reached double-digits. The third came when they gifted Nebraska its greatest comeback in program history.

Ohio State had not lost with this frequency this early in any season since 1988. The defense was its usual serviceable unit, but Jim Bollman's offense would not be winning any games. It took him several weeks to decide on Braxton over Joe Bauserman.

Dread accompanied us into the stadium that night. Dread had season tickets in 2011.

And if dread punctuated the first second, shock blasted it into oblivion a second later. Prior to Smith's sudden appearance near the goal line, it felt inevitable Ohio State would lose at home to Wisconsin. Second year in a row, to Bert of all people, in an era where the Buckeyes never lost to the same team back-to-back. Dread.

Everyone, especially the Wisconsin secondary, abruptly realized Smith was a simple fair catch away from Ohio State shocking the visitors. Several months earlier, many of us had applied a protective coating to our emotions in anticipation for what would be a taxing and thoroughly depressing football season.

This edition of the Buckeyes would be without Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor or any healthy optimism - and the previous seven games had justified that protective coating. We always knew it would suck like this. The total incompetence in Miami. Falling apart in Lincoln. Allowing Michigan State to win in Ohio Stadium while scoring 10 measly points.

But as soon Smith appeared like a ghost in the distance, that coating came off. In the span of one second and without saying a word, I was ready to care far more than a healthy person ever should about a college football team once again.

And I wasn't alone. Click play and turn up your volume. You can hear all of us making that decision.

A portal opened above the stadium, sucking all of the malaise, discontent and manufactured indifference out of entitled fans like me who had lied to ourselves about caring.

We were back, and it would not matter how bad it would get. We would be here. We would care.

Smith's first-ever catch against Wisconsin was so much more than a 40-yard TD pass

A week earlier, Ohio State finished its game in Champaign with 17 total passing yards. We had not seen a completion that went over 30 yards in several weeks. Braxton-to-Devin more than doubled that entire game's output.

The Buckeyes had just 49 total passing yards on six completions prior to this play. Wisconsin had taken the lead on a 49-yard touchdown pass by Russell Wilson. He had matched the Buckeyes entire evening output with a single throw.

In the span of three seconds, the dread had lifted. The idea that Ohio State couldn't occasionally get competent, lucky and supernatural - on a single play - was gone. The belief that the 2011 season would be comprehensively depressing was disproven. It was wondrous, if only for three seconds.

We generally look back at that season as the unfortunate but necessary transition which ushered in Urban Meyer while putting an unfortunate cap on the Tressel era. But tucked inside of that largely unenjoyable season, there were three seconds where there was only joy and nothing hurt.

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