COLUMBUS - Jim Tressel and Troy Smith earned that feeling of satisfaction they shared yesterday after Ohio State ambushed, manhandled and outclassed No. 7 Michigan for 60 minutes.
The Buckeyes' 37-21 blowout victory doesn't sufficiently describe just how much a change of quarterbacks and coaching philosophies improved the fortunes of this once-struggling football team.
Tressel took the wraps off his quarterback, Smith made everyone forget Justin Zwick, and the Buckeyes celebrated with their best offensive output of the season.
No Ohio State quarterback has had a better performance in a big game in Ohio Stadium than the one Smith put together against the run-stuffing, ball-hawking Wolverines.
Smith threw two touchdown passes. He completed 13 of 23 passes for 241 yards. He rushed for a game-high 145 yards and a score, becoming the first Ohio State quarterback to rush for 100 yards since 1977. He's also the first Buckeye to rush for 100 yards and pass for 200 yards.
He took the starch out of Michigan's respectable defense with daring, drive-sustaining runs out of the shotgun formation. He didn't commit a turnover after turning the ball over three times a week earlier at Purdue.
It was easily his best performance in a big game and the best game, period, of his career.
"Troy is one of those guys that's very willing to figure out what it is he needs to do to meet his goals," Tressel said. "He worked hard to work himself into [playing] opportunities, and then when he got his opportunity there were some great things he did."
Smith had considered transferring because of a lack of playing time. Now he's the ultimate team player.
"The road hasn't been that bad," he said. "Everything a human being gets is not always handed to him. I worked extremely hard. I stayed positive and stayed on an even keel at all times."
Smith is 4-1 since becoming the starter. When he replaced Zwick because of an injury, Tressel was forced to make some philosophical changes. He needed to re-visit his strategy.
That isn't to say Ohio State's game plan should look like it was scripted from Steve Spurrier. It shouldn't read as easily as The Cat In The Hat, either.
Tressel had to reach some sort of happy medium, where he wouldn't feel like he was betraying his conservative offensive background while still granting his new quarterback freedom to do his thing.
Instead of making the player fit the system, Tressel decided to make the system fit the player.
In spring practice, Tressel instructed his quarterbacks not to scramble. That worked fine for Zwick, who's a pocket passer. But it was a roadblock for Smith, who plays on instinct and is at his best when he isn't restricted.
As a result Smith is no longer strictly a pocket passer. He still does what he's told, only now he's free to roam when he can't locate a receiver. Sometimes, a Smith running play is the Buckeyes' No. 1 option.
In fact, when developing a game plan for Michigan, Tressel considered Smith's running ability to be a major factor in the Buckeyes' attack. Tressel even added a series of option plays designed specifically for Smith.
Smith led all Buckeyes with 18 carries, good for an 8.1-yard average.
"We liked some of our matchups, and we really felt that our quarterback run stuff was going to be difficult for them," Tressel said.
Tressel didn't want to get too cute. There was no need to outsmart himself, just Michigan's defense.
On his 68-yard touchdown bomb to Anthony Gonzalez giving the Buckeyes an early 7-0 lead, Smith displayed an unflinching pocket presence and a cannon for an arm.
He avoided Michigan's pass rush all afternoon. The Wolverines failed to record a sack against the Buckeyes for the first time since 1990.
Smith repeatedly created extra time for himself in the pocket. When he did set his feet, he delivered the ball with precision to open receivers.
On a big third-down play in the third quarter, Smith made two defenders miss and bolted for 46 yards.
"We knew coming in he was an exceptional athlete and that he was capable of making big plays," Michigan defensive back Marlin Jackson said. "Today he made too many big plays."
Good things come to those who wait, Tressel said. In describing Smith's incredible rise from substitute to starter, Tressel is quick to point out that Smith is Ohio State's No. 1 quarterback because he won the job fair and square.
"He'll take a step every day as long as he stays as focused as he is," Tressel said.
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