Why Ohio State should still be encouraged after the worst game of Justin Fields’ career
There will be plenty of things for Ohio State and its critics to nitpick after a close call against Indiana.
Justin Fields, for the first time in an Ohio State uniform, looked human. The secondary got torched. This does not look like the invincible team of 2019, the one that destroyed team after team on its way to an undefeated regular season.
To be hyper-focused on the areas that Ohio State needs to improve is fine, because the Buckeyes hold themselves to a national-championship standard. But to dwell on Ohio State’s shortcomings discounts an important fact even more clear after Saturday: Indiana is legit. Like top-10 legit.
The No. 3 Buckeyes held on for a 42-35 win against No. 9 Indiana in a game in which Fields threw 3 interceptions and Michael Penix Jr. threw for 491 yards. The way this one will be viewed, with the backdrop of the College Football Playoff Committee releasing its first rankings this week, depends on your perspective. The options are:
- Ohio State can’t win a national title with Fields turning the ball over like that and giving up 500 passing yards!
- Ohio State still beat a top 10 team with Fields turning the ball over like that and giving up 500 passing yards!
I’m choosing the latter, and here’s why.
As far as standards and expectations for Fields go, it couldn’t have been much worse. I mean, have we ever seen him play like that? I’m talking literally throwing the ball up for grabs as if it was a junior high game. Fields threw as many interceptions (3) on 30 pass attempts as he had for his entire career on 476 pass attempts. It was undoubtedly the worst game of his college career.
And yet Ohio State found a way to score 42 points. The run game, which has dropped off significantly from last season, piled up 307 yards. Master Teague (26 carries for 169 yards and 2 TDs) and Trey Sermon (9 carries for 60 yards) were the secondary threat the Buckeyes will need to beat elite teams.
So even though Fields didn’t look great, Ohio State (4-0) probably wasn’t going to win a national title with Fields as its only source of offense, which is the way it felt after 3 games. The Buckeyes couldn’t depend on the run game the way every other contender over the last 2 years has been able to. Trevor Lawrence has Travis Etienne, Mac Jones has Najee Harris and Joe Burrow had Clyde Edwards-Helaire. (And Fields had JK Dobbins).
Joel Klatt, who was calling the game Saturday, had himself a day. He was like Tony Romo, calling out the plays before they happened. But the one area I disagreed with him on is when he said Ohio State’s running game is being criticized just because of its high expectations. Ohio State’s run game, up until Saturday, had been subpar. The Buckeyes entered Saturday averaging 4.8 yards per rush, which still ranked 6th in the Big Ten but was almost a full yard less than what they averaged last year.
So Saturday’s performance was a positive development.
Now, about that defense.
It was bad. Real bad. Like call-a-timeout-5-seconds-into-the-game bad. Ohio State hadn’t given up 500 passing yards since 1981, and Penix almost got there. But give credit where credit is due. Penix is a very good QB, and Ty Fryfogle (7 catches for 218 yards and 3 TDs) is a very good receiver. The way he went up and over Shaun Wade was as impressive as it gets. Indiana (4-1) boasted one the Big Ten’s best offenses in 2019, and even though it hadn’t shown it yet in 2020, that ability was still there, as was the case Saturday.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 21, 2020
The same logic can be applied to Fields. Yes, he threw 3 picks, but Indiana was leading the country in interceptions per game and now has multiple INTs in 6 straight games. This wasn’t an aberration, it was a very good defense taking advantage of a few poor decisions. And don’t forget the 5 sacks, either.
While Ohio State has extremely high standards, keep in mind that this wasn’t the Buckeyes randomly laying an egg against some unranked, middle-of-the-pack team (like when Ohio State lost to Iowa in 2017 and Purdue in 2018). Indiana is a top-10 team for a reason, and Ohio State held the Hoosiers off despite their star QB’s worst game of his career and a brutal performance by the secondary.
Those issues need to be corrected if Ohio State is going to avenge last year’s CFP semifinal loss, obviously. But for now, take Saturday for what it was worth—a win against a top-10 team.