When Ohio State announced that quarterback Troy Smith would miss the Alamo Bowl because of a suspension, all eyes shifted to Justin Zwick.
Many wondered if Zwick, who started OSU’s first six games before suffering a separated shoulder, would be sharp after not playing since the Oct. 16 loss at Iowa.
But in a strange twist of irony, Zwick had one of his finest performances as the Buckeyes routed Oklahoma State 33-7 – the exact same score they lost by on that forgettable day at Iowa City.
Zwick came up big, completing 17 of 27 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown.
“I didn’t think about having a great game or trying to throw for a bunch of yards,” Zwick said. “Whatever is working is what you want to do. The run game was working well. If you run the ball well, it will only make it easier for the quarterback.”
OSU coach Jim Tressel talked about how Zwick –- who played through a painful hamstring injury -- came through in the clutch for the Buckeyes.
“I thought Justin did an excellent job,” Tressel said. “He made good decisions and had great command of the huddle. He let the guys know what needed to be done.
“He jumped into the bowl preparation. I remember saying that the last Tuesday and Wednesday (in Columbus), Justin played as well as I have ever seen him play and we were working hard those days. I thought he had some great practices.”
Zwick and the Buckeyes grabbed command of the game early and never let go. OSU linebacker Bobby Carpenter intercepted an Oklahoma State pass on the game’s third play and returned it to the Oklahoma State 28-yard line. The Buckeyes needed three plays to convert the turnover into points as Zwick tossed a 23-yard touchdown pass to a diving Anthony Gonzalez.
“I was actually expecting to throw the ball to Ted Ginn,” Zwick said. “They were very conscious of where Ted was. They jumped him, but Tony ran a great route and made a great play.”
The play gave the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
“That was huge for us,” said Zwick, who was 10 of 13 for 123 yards as OSU built a 23-0 halftime lead. “The defense did a great job of getting us the ball. The fact that we were able to capitalize on it and get some points, that set the tone for the game. That was big for us. The fact that we kept it going after that was what I was excited about. We didn’t let down. We kept moving the ball and were able to put some points on the board.”
But it was on Ohio State’s next possession that Zwick’s night took a turn. He was rolling toward his right on a pass play and was all alone when his pulled his left hamstring. He pulled up and had to leave the game with Ginn, a former high school quarterback, filling in.
OSU’s only other option would have been to burn a redshirt year for Todd Boeckman, who had not played all season. Zwick got immediate treatment and was back in on the next series.
“The team needed me because we wanted to redshirt some young guys,” Zwick said. “We didn’t want to ruin a year for them. I just had to do whatever I could do to stay in the game. I just kind of popped it on that run. I had to go out.
“It’s pretty sore – not sore enough to keep me out of the game. I kept it warm. This is as tired as I’ve been after a game. Every time I was out, I was over on that stationary bicycle. I just fought through it.”
When asked if he ordinarily would have been able to return, Zwick said, “I would have wanted to. I probably would have played it off that it wasn’t as painful. Everybody plays with injuries. It’s just something you have to be able to do.”
Tressel credited his quarterback for gutting it out.
“He played through the hamstring,” Tressel said. “I don’t know if any of you have ever suffered a hamstring pull, but playing with that is tough.”
Zwick’s other big play came in the second half, when he flattened Oklahoma State’s Marque Fountain while blocking for Ginn on a reverse.
“I had an opportunity and I was surprised,” Zwick said. “I thought I might have ended up as the one on the ground.
“It’s always fun to get into these bowl games and play teams from out of conference. They were a great team. We knew they would play us hard. The fact we were able to move the ball and score some points, that was exciting.”
Zwick talked about the way the Buckeyes stayed focus in the face of great controversy.
“We have great coaching,” Zwick said. “They were telling us not to worry about what was going on. We had great senior leadership, which Coach Tressel talks about all the time. They’ve done a great job of keeping our heads focused on what’s important and that showed tonight.”
Zwick believes this win could be a jumping off point for OSU’s championship hopes for 2005.
“The team was jelling there at the end of the season,” Zwick said. “The last two games showed that. The fact that we have a lot of guys coming back is exciting. They will all have a year under their belt. We want to take some time off and enjoy that and just get ready for workouts and spring ball.”
The way Zwick came back from his own adversity was a big plus, Tressel said.
“For three or four weeks, he was banged up and couldn’t be put in,” Tressel said. “But he handled his rehab and stayed in the game in the mentally. I really wasn’t involved in that. That was he and Joe Daniels and the rest of the quarterbacks. He was ready to play in the Michigan game, but it didn’t unfold that way. He was ready and I’m sure he would have done fine.”
After the way Smith led OSU to a 4-1 finish – including a great showing in the win over Michigan – many had conceded the starting job to him for next year. But his suspension, which could linger to next year, may open the door for Zwick. He began to walk toward that door, at the least, with his play against Oklahoma State Wednesday night.
“I never really thought I was totally out of the fight for the position,” Zwick said. “I had been in there before. I was telling myself I was going to fight and get better and just try to make this team better. It doesn’t hurt me at all to get this experience. It was fun being down here and getting this W.”
Likewise, Tressel said after the game he looks forward to another season of competition at the offense’s key position.
“Everyone is in the running,” Tressel said. “You know that. We have a competitive group of guys who make each other better. That’s what is great about Ohio State. Sometimes you reach your potential because of the other guys in the room. It’s a great situation.”