COLUMBUS - Without actually putting the words all in the same sentence, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has called his quarterback, Troy Smith, a "great" player.
One of the most often cited Tressel-isms is that "great players play great against Michigan." Using that criteria, Smith is great. His 386 yards of offense and his lead role in Ohio State's 37-21 win over the Wolverines last year made the grade.
After modest performances in seven games leading up to Michigan in 2004, against the Wolverines Smith exploded for 145 yards rushing and 241 yards passing - the most yards ever assembled by an Ohio State player in the Michigan game.
If Tressel decides to openly declare that the 6-1 junior from Cleveland is indeed "great," he will be telling Michigan something it already knows.
"He's a great athlete," Michigan defensive end Pat Massey said, adding that Smith is the most dangerous of the quarterbacks the Wolverines have faced this season - a group that includes Iowa's Drew Tate, Michigan
State's Drew Stanton, Notre Dame's Brady Quinn and Penn State's Michael Robinson.
"He's similar, but out of all of them, I think he's the best athlete and he's going to be the one who wants to run it the most," Massey said. "He's definitely going to pull it down and take off. I think he's going to be the most active out of all of them."
Michigan defensive back Grant Mason said the 215-pound Smith presents an ominous tailback-like presence when he tucks the ball and heads up field.
"He's a real big guy, but he's a quarterback," Mason said. "Hopefully, if I leverage him right and I have good level, it will end up being a good thing for me, not for him. If a defensive player has got an opportunity to go against a quarterback and you don't do well, your teammates will get after you."
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said his team got a bit of an education in Smith's talent in last year's game in Columbus.
"I think anytime that you have a performance like that against you, certainly you try to learn some things from it," Carr said. "Ohio State is not a one-dimensional team. They're not a one man team, but certainly Troy Smith is the guy that makes them go. He's proven that throughout the course of this year, and certainly after what he did against us a year ago, we understand that."
Smith's value as a runner, a passer and an offensive leader is not lost on the Ohio State senior class. Nick Mangold, one of the Buckeyes' captains and the guy who directs the pass protection for Smith from his center position, said Smith earned a lot of respect from his teammates by the way he handled a two-game suspension that forced him to miss last season's bowl game, and the 2005 opener against Miami of Ohio.
"I think Troy showed a lot of character in the way he conducted himself throughout that whole thing," Mangold said. "He admitted his mistakes, didn't try and blame anyone else, and accepted what came his way and moved on. He never let it interfere with his work, and he came back even more determined to lead this team. The guys all look up to him and respect him as a teammate, and as our leader on offense."
Carr said he has seen Smith improve this season as the starter in Ohio State's last eight games.
"I think he's throwing the ball extremely well and I think he has the confidence of having been in a lot of big games - the experience that comes with being in tight ball games, being in two-minute situations, being ahead, being behind - all of the things that you need to learn to be able to control the game and lead your team," Carr said. "I think he's done a great job of that."
Smith leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency, completing 103 of 172 attempts - 60 percent - with just four interceptions and 13 touchdowns. He has passed for 1,640 yards, and rushed for another 508.
Tressel said the measure of Smith's performance against Michigan in Ann Arbor this weekend will likely come down to Smith playing turnover-free, and taking advantage of what is in front of him.
"This is a tough defensive football team that he's going to face, in a tough environment," Tressel said, "and it's a great challenge for him and a great challenge for the guys that will be on the field at the same time with him. We certainly hope that he can continue to be efficient, make good decisions and so forth. But that's what Saturday is for - to find that out."
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