Until the warm, sunny day at Sun Devil Stadium, I still had doubts. I doubted his patience in the face of adversity. I doubted his ability to react when defenses adjust to him. I doubted his accuracy under duress.
Against Notre Dame on Monday in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Smith dispelled all my doubts and made me a believer.
The junior quarterback, who was named the offensive player of the game, completed 19 of 28 passes for a career-high 342 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 66 yards.
Smith's night can be summed up on one throw late in the fourth quarter with Ohio State holding on to a 27-20 lead. With less than three minutes to play he appeared on his way down in the arms of a Notre Dame defender, only to spin away, roll to his right and throw a strike for a first down on the right sideline. Antonio Pittman then ran for the clinching touchdown.
“Just keep it alive,” Smith said of the third-down conversion. “A team that is above or at 50 percent on third down can lead the nation. We don't want to go three-and-out.”
Why change my mind now, instead of after the Minnesota or Michigan game? Beating the Fighting Irish and coach Charlie Weis the way he did surpassed everything Smith has accomplished this season. It was the icing of a very sweet cake for a player under fire and underappreciated.
Weis, who helped orchestrate three Super Bowl victories in New England, had plenty of time and tape to learn how to befuddle Smith. Weis had free reign to throw anything he wanted at Smith to rattle and confuse him. After all, that is what worked in the past. Smith seemed to fold in the face of adversity.
This whole season has been filled adversity.
First, his 2004 season ended prematurely because of a suspension for taking money from a booster. He missed Ohio State's bowl game last season, delaying what could have been his coming out party.
“Sitting out last year's bowl game I didn't think about all that much,” Smith said. “Sending these seniors out winners was the most important thing.”
The suspension carried over into the first game of the this season, and Smith had to answer his detractors who said he was a bad kid and a bad quarterback.
He's been dissed by the fans for not being a pocket passer, for being too quick to run. A lot of Buckeye fans pleaded for Justin Zwick to get the starting job, and every time Smith silenced them, the cacophony could be heard again after losses to Texas and Penn State. Against the Nittany Lions, Smith looked lifeless and the screams to replace him appeared to be right. He couldn't handle the pressure.
In the end, he handled the pressure better than anyone could know.
Smith was learning his trade behind the scenes. Working to get better, because whenever he came up short, it wasn't because he didn't care. Smith wants the weight on his shoulders. He wants to carry the team when it needs him most and take the blame when it loses.
Against Notre Dame he carried the offense, took everything the Fighting Irish threw at him and put the Golden Domers away early. He misfired on his first pass of the game and didn't miss a beat the rest of the way. He threw long touchdown passes to both Ted Ginn Jr. and Santonio Holmes, the latter a Fiesta Bowl record 85 yards.
Smith looked comfortable and confident in the pocket, throwing darts to the sidelines and running for first downs when needed.
If there's a story at the Fiesta Bowl that can rival Notre Dame's apparent revival and the star-crossed lovers, (Laura Quinn, Brady Quinn's sister and A.J. Hawk) it's Smith finding his way.
Next season, the journey shouldn't be so hard.
“The national championship is (the Fiesta Bowl) next year,” Smith said with a smile. “We like that.”
JASON R. CRISLER can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 242 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.