In his first 10 games as Ohio State’s quarterback, Justin Fields has thrown only 16 passes in the fourth quarter.
Fields has tossed four fourth-quarter passes in four different games this season: the first two games of the year against Florida Atlantic and Cincinnati, and the Buckeyes’ two most competitive conference games of the season to date versus Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Even in all of those games, though, the Buckeyes really didn’t need Fields to make any big plays in the waning minutes. They were already up by at least 17 points entering the fourth quarters of all of those games, and none of them got any closer than that in the final quarter. The Buckeyes still haven’t yet been in any situation where they’ve needed Fields to lead them to victory with a late scoring drive and the game on the line.
That could change this week if Saturday’s game against Penn State is anything like Ohio State’s last two games against the Nittany Lions.
In 2017, Ohio State needed J.T. Barrett to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, and he delivered. Barrett completed all 13 of his fourth-quarter passing attempts for 170 yards and three touchdowns, allowing the Buckeyes to overcome a 15-point deficit and defeat Penn State, 39-38.
Last year, Ohio State needed Dwayne Haskins to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, and he also delivered. Facing a 12-point deficit with just eight minutes to play, Haskins completed six passes for 133 yards in leading the Buckeyes on back-to-back touchdown drives to defeat Penn State, 27-26.
Against a ninth-ranked Penn State team that should provide the toughest competition Ohio State has faced all season, the Buckeyes need Fields to be prepared to step up in the fourth quarter, too.
“That's what he has to be ready for,” Day said. “That's what he's working for all week is to be in that game and come down and win the game in the fourth quarter like J.T. Barrett did, like Dwayne Haskins did the year before. That's the game we're in, so it's going to take everything we have.”
On paper, Saturday’s game certainly looks like one in which the Buckeyes will need Fields to be on top of his game as a passer, perhaps more than in any of their first 10 games. Penn State’s rushing defense leads the nation with only 2.19 yards allowed per carry this season, which means yards on the ground could be tough to come by for J.K. Dobbins and company. Penn State’s passing defense, however, has looked plenty vulnerable, giving up more than 300 yards in each of its last two games against Minnesota and Indiana.
That sets the stage for Fields, coming off the first 300-yard passing game of his career despite playing for just one second-half drive against Rutgers, to potentially have his biggest game yet as a Buckeye on Saturday, when it would be a surprise if he doesn’t play for all four quarters.
Fields understands that as the competition ramps up in the homestretch of the season, he could face situations that he hasn’t had to face at Ohio State yet, but he said his approach will be the same as it has been all year.
“I’m not going to play any differently, whether it’s the beginning of the game or the end of the game,” Fields said. “I think every time we step on the field, our goal is to score. So I don’t think being later in the game puts more pressure on me.
“If it’s later in the game, you’ve already played a full game, you don’t have to have any more pressure on you. So you really just want to go out there, trust in the coaches, trust in the players.”
Ohio State would certainly prefer to avoid putting Fields in a situation where he has to lead the team to a fourth-quarter comeback, and Day said the key to avoiding that will be getting out to a fast start and execute better early in the game than the past two years against the Nittany Lions.
Whether it be in the first or the fourth quarter, though, Fields’ ability to make plays throughout the game will play a key role in whether the Buckeyes keep their winning streak going on Saturday.
Although Ohio State still wants its offense to be as balanced as possible, the Buckeyes have been more aggressive in downfield passing over the past two weeks – their wins over Maryland and Rutgers were just their second and third 300-yard passing games of the year – which Day said has been a point of emphasis for the Buckeyes since their second bye week.
“We just wanted to do a little bit better job throwing and catching the ball, and also in some of those games, we want to get the throws in a little bit earlier in the game, if we think it's going to go the way it's been the last couple weeks,” Day said. “So typically in games that get a little lopsided, we have to run the ball a little bit more in the second half. And so when you look back on those games, you want to make sure that guys like K.J. and guys like Ben and those guys are getting touches, so that's a little bit calculated going into those games.”
Given the strengths and weaknesses of Penn State’s defense, it’s likely the Buckeyes will make a calculated effort to attack through the air once again this week, but this time simply because it might be what they need to move the ball consistently against the Nittany Lions.
Fields has been an excellent passer for the Buckeyes all year, completing 69.1 percent of his passing attempts (159 of 230) for 2,164 yards and 31 touchdowns with only one interception, but because most of their games have been decided before halftime, his numbers still aren’t nearly what they could be if he was playing all four quarters and throwing the ball late in games every week.
Because of that, Fields appears to currently sit in a distant second or third in the Heisman Trophy race behind LSU’s Joe Burrow, but a big four-quarter performance to lead the Buckeyes to a win in a national-spotlight game against the Nittany Lions could be exactly what he needs to make a late run at the award.
That won’t be his or Day’s primary focus this week, and it hasn’t been all year; Fields has simply done what he needed to do to lead the Buckeyes to victories, and he’s done that week in and week out. This week, though, it’s likely that what he needs to do will be a little more, and should he get the job done and lead Ohio State to its 11th win of the year on Saturday, don’t be surprised if Day makes his pitch to Heisman voters on Fields’ behalf – just as he did after Fields’ 15-of-19, 305-yard, four-touchdown effort at Rutgers this past weekend.
“If he’s playing in those games and he’s playing for four quarters, they’re saying he’s right there for the leader of the Heisman,” Day said on Saturday. “I don’t think those guys should be penalized for that.”