COLUMBUS — No one thought Ohio State or its quarterback would be all that good this season.
One of the biggest reasons nobody expected the Buckeyes to be contenders is because they were losing a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and replacing him with a guy who had more birthdays (23) than he had minutes on the field (20).
Boy, were a lot of people wrong about the Buckeyes — and Todd Boeckman.
“Sometimes when you’re knighted before you’re deserving it works against you,” coach Jim Tressel said of his quarterback’s three-year wait on the sideline. “There’s the old axiom — some guys have to prove they can’t, some guys have to prove they can. You gain the greatest amount of confidence from your teammates when you’re one of the guys that has to prove he can.”
The Buckeyes are 9-0 and ranked No. 1, led by a quarterback who has played like a grizzled vet even though he’s spent more time watching others play than actually taking snaps.
Boeckman is tall, rangy and self-effacing, and will never be mistaken for last year’s superstar, a brash, strong-armed kid with a chip on his shoulder named Troy Smith. Boeckman’s numbers, however, are comparable.
—Both were in charge of unbeaten, top-ranked teams through nine games.
—Boeckman has completed 139 of 209 passes for 1,799 yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions. At the same point a year ago, Smith was 145 of 214 for 1,898 yards and 22 TDs with two interceptions.
—The formula that determines a passer’s effectiveness gives Boeckman a rating of 164.3 — third in the nation. Smith had a 174.31 through nine games.
Not bad for the son of a high school coach who saw only mop-up duty before this season and was never higher than third — if that — on the depth chart.
“Todd has done a complete 180,” fullback Dionte Johnson said. “He has the confidence that he needs to be our starting quarterback and he really uses that and transfers that over to every play. ... He’s shown he’s the leader and we’re behind him 100 percent.”
Just a few months ago, Boeckman was caught up in a battle for the starting job with Rob Schoenhoft and Antonio Henton. The consistent Boeckman slowly pulled ahead. Every pass was thrown the same way and each time he faced a problem he solved it.
Boeckman wasn’t just daydreaming while he spent the past two years holding a clipboard as first Craig Krenzel and then Smith ran the team. He was taking mental notes.
“I’ve seen how Troy handled himself the last 2½-3 years, and even a little bit of Craig,” he said. “Me being an older guy, having an opportunity to be around the block a little bit and seeing how guys handle themselves, that’s helped out tremendously.”
Boeckman has grown into the job. He’s thrown at least two touchdown passes in every game, getting more and more comfortable behind his massive line and with a fleet of fast and talented receivers. In a major test last week in front of more than 110,000 screaming fans at Beaver Stadium, he dissected No. 24 Penn State’s stolid defense by completing 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and three scores.
“There were a lot of question marks at the beginning of the season, kind of outside looking in,” said Boeckman’s favorite target, wide receiver Brian Robiskie. “But between the receivers and the running backs and the line, a lot of guys had a lot of confidence in Todd and what he was capable of doing.”
All the experts figured Ohio State’s defense would be stout, and it is, giving up just 8.9 points and 215 yards a game. No one thought the offense would be this explosive or multifaceted. Tailback Chris Wells is averaging 111 yards per game rushing, the line has only given up 10 sacks, and the offense is churning out 35 points and 419 yards a game.
“I knew I could get the job done,” Boeckman said. “I knew I had great guys behind me and around me. I knew I had a line that could protect me, that I had receivers who could catch the ball and backs who could run the ball. I knew we had great players. I just needed to be smart with the football.”
A year ago, the confident Smith embraced talk of winning the Heisman. Now, incredibly, Boeckman’s name has popped up on several national TV shows as a possibility for the award.
“I’m really not thinking about it,” he said. “When I was younger, everybody wanted to win the Heisman, that’s a dream for probably everybody in college football. It’s an honor. Hopefully we’ll keep winning out and maybe that’ll take care of itself, but I’m not really focused on that right now — just on us winning every week.”