But here was Ohio State’s Justin Fields. He wasn’t good enough to start at Georgia, so he transferred. He was dogged by limited opportunities to shine in the Buckeyes’ coronavirus-shortened six-game season. He entered the semifinal of the College Football Playoff with his three most recent starts having produced more interceptions than touchdowns.
“A lot of people [were] talking poorly about him as a quarterback,” Buckeyes Coach Ryan Day said, “and that bothered him.”
But drink in Ohio State’s 49-28 lambasting of Lawrence’s Tigers — a performance that would appear to make the Buckeyes a real threat to No. 1 Alabama in the national title game — and put it in a vacuum. What more could Fields have done? What throw can’t he make? What pain might he push aside to stay in a game?
And wasn’t he better than Lawrence — even as he had to grasp his right side after every drive, almost every play?
“It hurt every time I threw the ball,” Fields said.
The raw numbers are staggering at full strength, at which he was not. Fields finished with as many touchdown passes as incompletions, which is absurd. The tally: 22 for 28 for six — Six! — touchdowns and one interception, good for 385 yards. There are so many things that Fields isn’t supposed to be — a Heisman Trophy finalist, an accurate downfield passer. What he is after Friday: a fearless stud who might be able to get the Buckeyes to match Alabama and its two Heisman finalists score for score.
“His toughness, his grit,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “Just a great competitor.”
Which doesn’t mean Lawrence isn’t one. But evaluators take note of everything that happened on the Superdome field because over the course of a regular season — particularly an odd, uneven campaign so defined by the pandemic — programs such as Clemson and Ohio State rarely face opponents who can match them in talent. Here was Fields’s opportunity to put behind his past three starts — in which he completed just 58 percent of his passes and threw four touchdowns with five interceptions while taking 11 sacks — and forge forward. Those two divergent developments — his two-pick, 12-for-27 performance against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game and Friday night’s masterpiece — were related.
“He had an edge to him,” Day said.
“It just made me prepare more and prepare like I’ve never prepared before,” Fields said.
And execute not just the game plan but every kind of throw a quarterback needs to make. When the Buckeyes still trailed in the first quarter, he fired into a thistight window to tight end Luke Farrell, eight yards for his first touchdown toss of the evening. With the score still tied in the second quarter, he directed a play that flowed beautifully to the left — only to turn back to his right to find Jeremy Ruckert, the other tight end, for a 17-yard score.
Then came the downfield brilliance — Chris Olave for 56 yards in stride was gorgeous, but the stunner was a throw to Jameson Williams in which he was pressured, hung in and delivered a ball that, had he been targeting a kitchen trash can 45 yards away, would have floated right to the bottom without hitting the sides.
And this was all while in obvious — even debilitating — pain. With six minutes left in the second quarter, Ohio State led, but at 21-14 it was still a ballgame and felt, frankly, like it could be back-and-forth all night. At that point, Fields broke through the line of scrimmage and had the first-down marker in his sights.
Here came Clemson linebacker James Skalski, who essentially coordinates the Tigers’ defense on the field. Skalski lowered his head, and there was his error. He thudded into Fields’s side, a wince-inducing hit. In another era — say, five years ago? — it would have been a hard hit in a hard-hitting football game.
But players can’t lead with their head — ever. Doesn’t matter if the ballcarrier changes the point of impact from the defender’s shoulder to crown. Doesn’t matter the intent. The dome of Skalski’s helmet hit Fields’s midsection first and with force. Skalski was flagged for targeting — and therefore was ejected, as he had been in last year’s national championship game loss to LSU.
“I’m not going to get into the would have, could have, should have,” Swinney said.
He shouldn’t, because from there, Fields was unstoppable. Grabbing his side, he left the game for a single play.
“I’m like, ‘Can you throw?’ ” Day said. The answer: I don’t know.
“It’s pretty much my whole right torso that’s messed up,” Fields said afterward. “A little bit of my hip.”
In the moment, though, Day said he told Fields, “I need some information.” He said he could go, so he went. He missed one play. On the snap he returned, he found Olave for a nine-yard score — and a 14-point lead. The game was never close again.
“I’m just thinking to myself: This kid is tough,” Day said. “… So much of being a great quarterback is being tough.”
And so much, for Fields, might be responding to past slights. He is at Ohio State because Georgia chose Jake Fromm — who became a fifth-round NFL draft pick and is now a backup — as its starter over him, so Fields transferred. Fields and the Buckeyes were particularly hyped for Clemson because they lost to this same team at this same point a year ago — a game that ended when Olave slipped near the end zone and Fields’s final pass was picked off with less than a minute to go.
Friday night makes up for all that.
“They’re going to remember this one,” Day said he told Fields. “And they’ll remember it for a long time in the history of Ohio State football.”
That should be enough. The NFL draft is months off. Justin Fields’s performance is right now. He clearly has the tools to succeed as a professional. What’s more important in the moment: using those tools to beat Alabama.