If you were watching, you probably felt it. You probably grimaced. Even Clemson fans. Even those who disagreed with the call.

There may be some debate to the merit of the targeting rule, but there’s no debate to this: James Skalski’s hit on Justin Fields hurt. A lot. It was probably more physical pain than any of us have felt in our lives, and yet Fields not only toughed it out, he delivered a performance for the ages in the biggest game of his career.

If Fields had just thrown 4 touchdown passes (and 222 yards) against Clemson in the College Football Playoff, it would’ve been impressive on its own, but since those numbers came AFTER this bone-crushing (or rib-crushing) hit from Skalski, let’s call this what it was—legendary.

Fields, probably playing with broken ribs, racked up 385 passing yards and a career-high 6 touchdowns on 22 of 28 passing in No. 3 Ohio State’s 49-28 romp of No. 2 Clemson to put the Buckeyes in the national championship against No. 1 Alabama. Finally, after being slighted in comparisons to Lawrence over the years—and in the last few weeks—Fields got the upper hand. This performance will go down as one of the best in Ohio State history, right up there with Ezekiel Elliott against Alabama in 2014.

Fields told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi afterward that his ribs were killing him all game, and that was easy to see. Just look at him get on the exercise bike! When you contrast that with the way Fields was slinging 45-yard and 56-yard moon balls for TDs, it doesn’t make sense. It’s super-human. That it came against 1 of the 10 FBS defenses with more interceptions than TD passes made it all the more incredible.

 

This was everything Fields had waited for since throwing a game-ending interception in a potential game-winning drive against Clemson last season. This game is why Fields fought so hard for the Big Ten to even have this season.

The best players channel every slight, and surely Fields has heard them over the years in regards to the fellow Georgia high school product. Lawrence was ranked No. 1 in the 2018 class, while Fields was No. 2. Lawrence is the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, while Fields is anywhere from 2-10. Lawrence is talked about like he is the best player in the sport, and Fields is often overshadowed in that conversation.

No more.

Lawrence’s numbers on Friday (33 of 48 for 400 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT) were a little deceiving, as he threw for 144 yards after Ohio State took a 49-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. Fields was clearly the superior player on this night, and it brings up a bigger point: Why isn’t Fields talked about the same way as Lawrence?

Coming into this game, Fields had slightly better numbers over the last 2 seasons than of Lawrence, and after this near-flawless outing, he deserves to be right up there in the conversation for No. 1 overall, and he deserves to go down in history as an equal to Lawrence. He probably won’t be, because it seems the football community has its mind made up about Lawrence. But now Fields and Lawrence are 1-1 against each other—and only Fields won in a blowout. How weird is it to think that if not for Clemson getting every break last year, Fields would be 2-0 against Lawrence?

Ohio State (and the Big Ten) has been maligned the last month as their schedule was called into question, but the Buckeyes (7-0) left little doubt that they belonged on this stage. Maybe Dabo Swinney will bump the Buckeyes into his own top 10, huh?

And there were plenty of folks who dinged Fields after a subpar performances against Indiana and Northwestern, but that happens sometimes against Big Ten defenses—especially when they are the top 2 in interceptions per game nationally. But if you watched the games, you knew that Fields was just trying to do a little too much. He didn’t suddenly forget how to play QB.

The best sign Friday was when Fields checked the ball down to Trey Sermon for a 34-yard gain on the second possession. Fields sometimes tries to do too much and is hesitant to target his running backs and tight ends (or anyone besides Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson), but he struck the perfect balance. Tight ends Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert hadn’t even caught a pass since Nov. 7 against Rutgers, yet they combined for 3 TDs in the first half.

Fields, who also had a sprained thumb from the Big Ten Championship Game, could’ve just kept handing the ball off to the suddenly unstoppable Trey Sermon (31 carries for 193 yards) as Ohio State built a 3-TD lead, but he has waited too long for this moment to be a decoy. It was fitting that he burned Clemson safety Nolan Turner for 2 second-half TD passes after Turner picked off Fields last year to end the game.

Justin Fields, with one of the guttiest performances in college football history, reminded everyone why he is a superstar and every bit the player that Trevor Lawrence is, all while gutting out an insanely painful injury. The focus will quickly shift to the national championship, and rightfully so, but history will remember this as a legendary performance by a legendary player.