After Justin Fields suffered a back injury on a third-quarter touchdown run in Ohio State’s 38-7 win over Wisconsin on Saturday, one might think he would want to take this week – the Buckeyes’ second bye week of the regular season – to rest and recover as much as possible.
Fields doesn’t see it that way.
“A lot of guys, they use bye weeks just to rest and stuff like that, but I take an approach to the bye week as a time to get better,” Fields said this week. “So during the bye week, I’m just gonna go back to fundamentals and just working on my feet and just pocket presence and just get down to the basics, really.”
While Fields said Tuesday that his back was still “kind of sore,” he expects to feel fine by the end of the week, so he isn’t too worried about it. Quarterbacks don’t get hit during practices, either, so he doesn’t feel as though the minor back injury should change anything he’s doing in his preparation over the next two weeks for the Buckeyes’ next game against Maryland.
“I think at some positions, but quarterback, I don’t think the things we do, I don’t think it’s too vigorous or too hard,” Fields said. “I get a good amount of rest, so I’m not really worried about getting rest. I’m just worried about getting better.”
For the team as a whole, though, the balance between resting and recovering and staying sharp is one that the Buckeyes need to strike properly this week.
Ohio State has rolled through its first eight games of the season, winning all of them by at least 24 points, and the next two games on the schedule against Maryland and Rutgers shouldn’t be tough. The Terrapins are just 3-5 this season and have lost four of their last five games – including three by at least 26 points – while Rutgers is just 2-6 and has lost four of its last five games by at least 35 points.
After that, though, the Buckeyes face what could be their toughest stretch of the season – a home game against Penn State, a road game at Michigan and if they win both of those, a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game – and they won’t have another week off after this one until after the conference title game.
The second bye week is unusual in itself, as college football teams typically have only one bye week per season, and it comes just three weeks after the Buckeyes had their first bye week of the year. So it’s certainly an opportunity that players like starting cornerback Jeff Okudah – who has played 395 snaps this season, second-most among all defensive players – can take advantage of to get as healthy as possible for the homestretch of the year.
“I think it’s a big bonus,” Okudah said. “This is the first time that I’ve had two weeks, especially so close together, so you give a lot of guys a chance to recover their bodies over the course of a season. Fall camp, people tend to get injured, so having that extra week to recover, before you head into that last four-game stretch is really big.”
Ryan Day said it is important for he and the rest of Ohio State’s coaching staff to be smart about how many reps they put their players through in practice this time of year in order to keep them fresh after already playing eight games.
“We always take the amount of reps serious and really handle that. It's very sensitive, so that's one of the things we have to make sure we're doing a good job of down the stretch,” Day said. “Injuries are part of the game. This time of year, guys are going to be banged around, and it's a tough game. We certainly won't be foolish with that, though. We'll make sure that we really think through every rep and make sure that we're putting guys in the right situations, the reps that they need to practice.”
At the same time, though, the Buckeyes can’t afford to let their foot off the gas pedal too much. Sure, they could probably rest most of their starters against Maryland and Rutgers and still win those games. But they also know from past experience – their loss to Iowa in 2017, their loss to Purdue and near-loss to Maryland in 2018 – what can happen if they don’t maintain the same focus they’ve had all year.
“One of the reasons why I think we've been playing so well is we're practicing so hard, and we have to continue to do that,” Day said.
So while this week is an opportunity for the Buckeyes, especially those who have played a lot of snaps this year, to heal up for the final trimester of the regular season, they’re also using this week to get back to basics and continue to hone the skills that have gotten them this far.
“Over the course of a season, things kind of slip away from you, so just fine-tuning all those little things and just put that in kind of the bank moving forward,” Okudah said. “I know the coaches are going to put a big emphasis on refreshing those fundamentals.”
If there’s ever a time when the Buckeyes could be inclined to let their guard down, it’s now, given that they have firmly established themselves as one of the best teams in the country and will be heavily favored to win both of their next two games after the bye week. They’re confident, though, that they’re made of the right stuff to make sure that doesn’t happen and keep on playing as well as they have all year.
“If they're reading the hype, if they're reading all that stuff, then they're more foolish than I thought they would be,” Day said. “I don't think our guys are going to do that. I think we're just going to work every day to get better.”