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COLUMBUS, Ohio – After they had hit him high and hit him low, after they had knocked him in the chest and bashed him in the helmet, after the Michigan Wolverines had tossed Troy Smith to the Ohio Stadium turf for the umpteenth but last time, he didn't want to leave it.
Surrounded by a sea of scarlet as the Best Damn Band in the Land played for its best damn quarterback and its best damn team, Troy Smith just soaked the moment into his sore body. The locker room celebration could wait. The press conference could start without him. This was worth the hurt.
Twelve wins on the season secured, an outright Big Ten championship won, a Bowl Championship Series title-game bid earned, a Heisman Trophy all but clinched, a third consecutive conquering of the Wolverines – 42-39 – in the history books and a legend etched in stone the hard way, who could blame him?
The Ohio State quarterback had taken a beating at the hands of his archrivals, but he never buckled, never bled.
Troy Smith might be the most sensationally electrifying player in America – as a trophy ceremony in Manhattan next month should prove – but you don't beat Michigan, you don't win the Big Ten without a different quality.
You don't win with just slashing speed and perfect spirals. You win with toughness.
"You can't be a championship quarterback and can't be what I believe is an All-America quarterback without toughness," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "His No. 1 quality is his toughness."
Michigan tried every way it could to knock Smith out of this game for the ages here on a good, gray day. This was No. 1 vs. No. 2, and the first priority for Michigan was finding a way to stop Smith, who had tortured the Wolverines the last two seasons.
There is no better way to contain him than a hard, clean shot by a LaMarr Woodley or a Rondell Biggs that might pound him senseless.
And so they blitzed and rushed and smacked Smith when he dared to stay in the pocket and crushed him when he ran. And each time he just bounced back up, quicker each time.
"He took a big hit in the first quarter [courtesy of Biggs], and he was the first guy up," marveled OSU defensive tackle Joel Penton. "He helped the defensive players up."
The Wolverines weren't going to break Smith, and thus they weren't going to beat Ohio State. Not here in the Horseshoe, not here on Senior Day. Smith completed 29 of 41 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns and drew so much focus that twice simple Buckeye running plays were broken for touchdowns of 50-plus yards.
All the while he kept taking those Wolverine whacks and springing back into the huddle to remind everyone that in this game, being tougher is the same as being better.
"[When] I come back to the huddle, I stare at 10 guys in the huddle, eyes wide open, alert, ready to dominate," Smith said. "So there's no way that I can feel as if my legs hurt, my knee is hurt, my elbow is hurt and limp or act like something is wrong with my body. I could never shortchange any of my teammates."
Smith kept deflecting attention after the game, praising his teammates, praising his coaches, saying (correctly) that he would be nowhere without them. But it is a two-way street. Smith turns this team from good to great. He is the leader who gathered his teammates on the sideline at one point to scream at them to correct some failures.
This was a brutally physical game, intensely emotional, played on the grandest scale imaginable with enormous stakes, a six-figure crowd and a palpable energy that only these two ancient rivals can churn up.
It was a game Smith dreamed of playing while growing up in Cleveland and a game he forever has left his mark on – winning three times as a starter, this one the most high risk and historic of them all.
As close as the final score was, as much as the game technically was in the balance until the final play, this also was a game Ohio State controlled. It was Michigan that was constantly digging out of a hole, fighting its way back because it just couldn't stop the Ohio State offense, just couldn't stop Smith.
The Buckeyes attacked a vaunted Michigan defense to the tune of 503 yards. OSU punted only three times.
Now it is on to Arizona for the Buckeyes, Smith promising to finish this out regardless of the opponent. Maybe it is Michigan again, maybe someone else. He said he hardly cared at this point.
After the game, everyone wanted to talk BCS with Smith. Everyone wanted to talk Heisman. Everyone wanted a word, an autograph, a picture, a moment.
But Smith, the band still ringing in his ears, the bruises still fresh, just wanted to get away from it all, get back outside, get back to the most familiar face in this massive crowd.
The toughest SOB in college football had just won the toughest game of his life. Troy Smith just wanted to go hug his mother.