The television camera found Justin Fields as the clock hit zero, and anybody watching from their couch could immediately see what he was thinking. The shaking of his head and eyes pointed at the ground said it all.
Yes, Ohio State got the win it sought as it took the field. No, he didn’t feel like he played anywhere close to the sky-high standard he sets internally.
Fifteen or so minutes later, he stood behind a podium and, as expected, evaluated his performance in the 42-35 home victory versus Indiana as harshly as people who saw that emotionless look on his face as the game ended would have predicted.
“I didn't play well at all,” Fields said. “I have to improve. I have to get better. That's all I really have to say.”
Fields’ self-critiques, while harsh, were on point. It was the worst game of his career. The junior quarterback completed 18-of-30 passes for 300 yards with two touchdown tosses, two interceptions and 78 more yards on the ground.
But let’s take a second to contextualize this.
The unequivocal worst game of Fields’ career included him throwing for 300 yards, scoring three times, completing 60 percent of his passes and carrying the ball for more rushing yards than Indiana has averaged per game this season. He made a few grave errors – the three interceptions matched how many interceptions he had thrown in his prior 17 starts – but he still led an offense that accumulated more than 600 total yards and beat a top-10 Indiana squad that might be the conference’s second-best team.
If that’s the worst day Fields has ever had as an Ohio State quarterback, he must be pretty damn good. There’s a reason why head coach Ryan Day reiterated his opinion this week that Fields is “the best quarterback in the country.”
“He's his worst critic,” Day said on Tuesday. “He's really hard on himself. That's what makes him great. He's very, very competitive.”
Fields, for the majority of his time in Columbus, has executed flawlessly. The star signal-caller has a penchant for not making mistakes even though his athleticism allows him to extend plays when almost nobody else on this planet could. He’d thrown three interceptions in his first 17 starts combined and completed more than 85 percent of his passes across the first three games of this season. That’s why Saturday’s performance was so out of character.
“He's going to be the same. Just had a couple mistakes on a couple plays. He's going to bounce back better than ever, and I hope you guys believe that too.”– Chris Olave on Justin Fields
Now, instead of learning through rigorous film study, one-on-one work with Day and the five dozen practices he’s taken part in this year, he has to learn from failure. He’s learning lessons the hard way with in-game failures, which have been rarities for Fields.
Given that Ohio State escaped with a seven-point win, there’s a tendency by some to wonder whether him going through that was actually a positive. Day doesn’t totally believe in that idea.
What if one other thing had swung Indiana’s way – whether a call or a fumble or a blown assignment – would have swung the game? It’s too dangerous in Day’s mind to view it solely as a positive.
“I would say as a team and as the head coach, we do not want this to happen,” Day said with a light chuckle. “But if we're talking about him individually and his development and his growth, adversity's a very, very good thing. When you look back on the great quarterbacks, when it comes really easy to them and they just roll through everything and the minute they hit adversity then things get hard, any time you go through some adversity along the way, it really helps in his development.
“But certainly don't want to see any more of those.”
To get specific, he doesn’t want Fields to be so careless as to make three egregious mistakes that lead to a trio of turnovers.
The first of his interceptions over the weekend came when the Hoosiers disguised their coverage and he made a poor read. Each of the next two times, he could’ve taken a sack or thrown the ball away but tried to make something happen and lofted balls that sailed through the air at a slower speed than a middle-schooler’s knuckleball, allowing Indiana players to pick them off.
“I just talked about, in some of those situations, not forcing the action, not trying to do too much with it,” Day said. “In a game like that, we knew there was going to be big plays, but we also knew that they were going to get home on some things. You can't make bad plays worse, and that did happen a little bit in the game, and he knows it. Certainly could have done a better job in protection. Certainly could have put him in some better spots coaching-wise. He also could have made some better decisions throwing the ball away and ditching it.
“That's hard. He's so competitive. He also made a bunch of plays with his feet, as well. That's hard for him to let go sometimes, but that's part of playing quarterback. I know he's looking to get better in that area.”
And, presumably, he will improve there.
Fields, since he’s been at Ohio State, has never had to have a bounce-back game. He threw one interception in his first 13 games as a starting quarterback before his two-interception Fiesta Bowl versus Clemson. After that game, he had to wait more than 10 months to play another game as a Buckeye, yet he legitimately looked like a better all-around player the next time he took the field.
For the first time, with a game at Illinois looming on Saturday, he’ll have a one-week turnaround to make the necessary adjustments.
“He's going to be the same,” wide receiver Chris Olave said on Tuesday. “Just had a couple mistakes on a couple plays. He's going to bounce back better than ever, and I hope you guys believe that too.”