COLUMBUS - With Big Ten also-ran Indiana visiting the Horseshoe yesterday and providing some relief in the schedule, the time was right for Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith to make some strides in his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
After brushing off an 0-for-4 start passing, the Buckeye senior matched his career high of four touchdown passes (to four different receivers) - all by halftime - and helped top-ranked OSU breeze to a 44-3 victory over the Hoosiers before a crowd of 105,267 at Ohio Stadium.
The convincing win extended the nation's longest winning streak to 15 games and may have also put some distance between Smith and the rest of the Heisman hopefuls.
It also put the Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0) one week closer to what appears to be a Big Ten championship collision course with fellow unbeaten and second-ranked Michigan (8-0, 5-0), which defeated Iowa yesterday.
"We didn't start out great the first two or three minutes of the game," OSU coach Jim Tressel said. "But, after that, we did everything we had to do to have a decisive victory. The guys made plays.
"We feel like we took one more step, and we have to get much better. But that's the fun of it."
Smith's big day started with a well-executed screen pass to the left to running back Antonio Pittman with 4:28 left in the first quarter and OSU down 3-0 to the Hoosiers (4-4, 2-2).
The play, which netted the Buckeyes their first first down of the game on their third possession, went for 22 yards. It got the crowd into the game and ignited an 87-yard touchdown drive.
The march closed on Smith's 23-yard TD strike over the middle to tight end Rory Nicol with 2:55 left in the first period.
"He's just so mature," Nicol said of Smith. "His game is at a level that a lot of people aren't even close to. He's very smart in his decision-making, and he's a very demanding player. He demands a lot out of all of us.
"I sometimes think about what it'll be like in X amount of years to look back and say, 'I played with him.' Troy's a special player. He loves Ohio State, and he puts it on the line every week."
With 20 seconds left in the second quarter, Smith capped his four-TD half by threading a one-yard strike to a diving Jake Ballard for a 28-3 lead.
In between he hit his two favorite receivers for scores. First it was Ted Ginn Jr. on a 31-yard hookup after Smith's superb display of athleticism and field awareness. He used a spin move to avoid a sack, rolled left, and appeared ready to take off before stopping at the 33. He backpedaled two steps and fired the TD strike to Ginn on the first play of the second quarter.
With 6:32 left in the half, Smith hit a wide-open Anthony Gonzalez for a five-yard score. After his 0-for-4 start, Smith closed the half by hitting 11 of 14 passes for 170 yards.
Does Smith allow the Heisman talk to creep into his thoughts?
"I can't, and I won't let it," he said, "because I have a total understanding that everybody else around me is just as important.
"Everybody likes to hype up [the Heisman]. I try to get wrapped up in my teammates because, without them, I'm not in this situation."
The Buckeyes added Ginn's 38-yard TD pass to Nicol on a reverse pass play and a 51-yard field goal by Aaron Pettrey in the third quarter and Chris Wells' 12-yard TD run in the fourth.
"Today we were out-coached and out-played by a team, that on this day, was No. 1," Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner said.
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