B1G 5: What's on the line for Justin Fields? Only everything
1. The B1G Reality
There’s no avoiding it now: It’s officially gut-check time for Justin Fields.
Ohio State’s season, and his immediate NFL Draft future, depend on what plays out Friday in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson.
“We all want to see guys when they face adversity, how they respond,” one NFL scout told me this week. “I can’t wait to see what he has for this game.”
It better be a significant increase from what we’ve already seen in 2020.
Through 6 games of this uneven COVID season, Fields has barely looked like the 2019 uber talent who could do no wrong.
He’s missing throws, his accuracy is way down and more damning, he played poorly in Ohio State’s two most important games of the regular season.
“I would say this season, or whatever you call it, has opened some eyes – and not in a good way,” another NFL scout told me this week. “Still a remarkable talent, but, yeah, there is pause now.”
How could there not be?
In the first 3 games of the season against average-to-bad defenses, Fields was nearly perfect: 87% of passes completed, 11 TDs, 0 INTs, 10.9 yards per attempt.
In the final 3 games, against two strong defenses (Indiana, Northwestern) and the best defensive mind in the Big Ten (Michigan State’s Mel Tucker), Fields was pedestrian: 58% of passes completed, 4 TD, 5 INT, 7.6 yards per attempt.
Fields threw the same amount of interceptions against Indiana (3) in 30 passes, as he did all of last season in 354 attempts.
“The reckless throws, the ball security, that’s not something we saw last season,” another NFL scout told me. “This season has been so hit and miss, and you don’t really know who he’s playing with or how much prep time they’ve had. He’s pressing a bit, trying to do too much. There’s no doubt about that.”
The easy excuses are there: a shortened preseason of preparation, with multiple starts and stops. Games (and more important) practices without a full team because of COVID cases or tracing. And the overall uncertainty of playing during a pandemic, and everything that comes with it.
Then there’s the injury. Both Fields and Ohio State coach Ryan Day barely mentioned a thumb injury on Fields’ throwing hand during Sugar Bowl media availability. The injury, which occurred in the fourth quarter of the Big Ten Championship Game, clearly affected his play against Northwestern.
He didn’t have the same velocity on intermediate and numbers to sideline throws, and many throws fluttered. Even before the injury, he was well into the worst game of his career.
He was under pressure all game by a Northwestern defense that while strong, isn’t at the level of Clemson.
“The closest thing Ohio State has to replicating what they’ll see against Clemson is their own defense,” a Big Ten coach told me. “And I doubt they’re going good on good in practice when they’re, like everyone in our league, just trying to find guys to practice.”
But now Fields can change the entire direction of his shaky junior season with a big game against Clemson, and secure his spot as the No. 2 quarterback taken in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Let’s not forget that prior to the last drive of last year’s semifinal loss to Clemson, the argument could be made that Fields outplayed Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. In fact, both of Fields’ interceptions – including the game-ender on the last drive of the game – weren’t bad throws.
The first to the sideline was intercepted after Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons made a fantastic read/break on the ball, and the second in the end zone happened after Ohio State receiver Chris Olave broke off a route while trying to extend a play.
Neither throw was a bad play by Fields. One was an exceptional play by Simmons, the other was a common mistake by a receiver.
All of that means nothing this time. Last year, Fields was playing with a hot Ohio State team and momentum from a rare individual season.
This time, we still don’t know who will be eligible to play because of COVID and/or tracing, and Fields is coming into the biggest game of the season with a load of individual questions.
“One game isn’t going to break him,” an NFL scout said. “But a big game in that environment sure can change some minds. Everyone has bad games, or bad stretches of games. I want to see how he responds.”
2. The lost art of the run game
There’s an odd symmetry between the last time Ohio State won the national title and this season.
Stick with me here.
Ohio State got hot in the last month of the 2014 season because tailback Ezekiel Elliott became the focal point of the offense. By the end of the season, even starting a third string quarterback couldn’t bring down the Buckeyes.
Make no mistake, Ohio State revolves around Fields. But tailback Trey Sermon, who finally broke out (in a huge way) against Northwestern, might just be the one player who can change the tempo of the game for Ohio State and get it to the fourth quarter.
If Sermon continues his late-season push – 443 yards in the last 2 games, including 331 vs. Northwestern – Clemson will be forced to dial back exotic blitz packages against Fields and account for the run.
“He makes them different,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had guys at him one on one – and he ran through them.”
Elliott played his best in the final 3 games of the 2014 season, each with Playoff impact. He had 220 yards and 2 TDs in a Big Ten Championship Game win over Wisconsin, 230 yards and 2 TDs in a CFP semifinal win over Alabama, and 246 yards and 4 TDs in the championship game against Oregon.
That 3-game run of 696 yards rushing and 8 TDs was critical to Ohio State’s success, and gives this year’s team a path to winning in the postseason. The more the Buckeyes can run the ball and dictate tempo with a balanced offense, the better chance they have against Clemson and Alabama or Notre Dame.
3. A statement game
Indiana, for so long a vacuous nothing in Big Ten football, is on the verge of filling the void Michigan has left in the East Division.
All it takes is the first bowl win since 1991.
They’ve taken significant steps in the last 2 years under coach Tom Allen, but now the Hoosiers must back up an impressive regular season with a statement game for all of college football.
Beat Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, and there’s no denying where the program is headed.
“I remember coming to games when I was maybe a sophomore in high school, and coming here to play football was not even in consideration,” said IU center Harry Crider. “The games were never really close. The stadium was half full. Where we are now is crazy.”
Where is Indiana? For starters, ahead of Michigan in the East Division, which on its own is a staggeringly impressive move under Allen.
But this team wants more, and it begins and ends with gaining respect.
If Michigan or Michigan State or Penn State finished the season 6-1, and the only loss was to Ohio State on the road by 7, they’d be playing in a New Year’s 6 bowl.
Indiana, despite being used as the main data point by the CFP selection committee (see: a top-10 win) in its quest to keep Ohio State nationally relevant, was ignored by the committee when it was deciding New Year’s 6 matchups.
IU, you see, isn’t sexy enough. Doesn’t have the history or tradition of bluebloods.
Doesn’t bring eyeballs to televisions for the CFP media partners.
There’s only one way to break through that backward thinking: an impressive win over an SEC team in a bowl game.
Win here and set up 2021 with a boatload of momentum, and there’s no limit for this program that returns one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten (QB Michael Penix Jr.) and the confidence that what began in 2019 under Allen will only get better.
“We’re building something here,” Allen said. “There’s nothing quite like being the first to do something.”
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: the 2021 nonconference schedule.
1. Ohio State: Oregon, Tulsa, Akron
2. Indiana: Idaho, Cincinnati, at WKU
3. Iowa: at Iowa State, Kent State, Colorado State
4. Northwestern: Indiana State, at Duke, Ohio
5. Penn State: Ball State, Auburn, Villanova
6. Wisconsin: Eastern Michigan, Notre Dame (Chicago), Army
7. Minnesota: Miami (Ohio), at Colorado, Bowling Green
8. Maryland: West Virginia, Kent State
9. Michigan State: Youngstown State, at Miami, WKU
10. Michigan: Western Michigan, Washington, Northern Illinois
11. Rutgers: Temple, at Syracuse, Delaware
12. Illinois: UTSA, at Virginia, Charlotte
13. Nebraska: Buffalo, at Oklahoma, Southeastern Louisiana
14. Purdue: Oregon State, at UConn, at Notre Dame
5. The weekly picks
Bowl picks against the spread:
- Clemson (-7.5) vs. Ohio State
- Wake Forest vs. Wisconsin (-9)
- Northwestern (-3.5) vs. Auburn
- Indiana (-8.5) vs. Ole Miss