As Justin Fields prepares for his second chance to play Clemson in the College Football Playoff, he’s taken his poor performance against Northwestern as a wakeup call.
By just about any measure, Fields had his worst game in his two years as Ohio State’s starting quarterback in the Big Ten Championship Game. He completed just 44.4 percent of his passing attempt (12-of-27) for 114 yards and zero touchdowns – all lows for his Ohio State career – while also throwing two interceptions. As one would expect from a competitor like Fields, he wasn’t very happy with himself after the game, even though the Buckeyes ultimately beat Northwestern 22-10.
Fields was without one of his top two receivers for that game, as Chris Olave was unavailable, and he suffered a thumb injury in the fourth quarter that hampered his ability to throw the ball late in the game. But Fields didn’t want to make any excuses for his poor play.
“I just have to be flat-out better and that's that,” Fields said after the Big Ten Championship Game. “I'm not trying to make any excuses. I just have to be better.”
The Big Ten Championship Game was the second time in Ohio State’s last three games that Fields had an uncharacteristically poor performance, as he also threw three interceptions in the Buckeyes’ 42-35 win over Indiana. Those two games played a big part in Fields falling to seventh in the Heisman Trophy race after a spectacular start to the season in which he had the same number of touchdown passes as incompletions (11 of both) in Ohio State’s first three games.
Knowing he hasn’t played up to his ability, though, has served as fuel for his preparation last week and this week as he goes into a game against Clemson – the only team that’s beaten Ohio State during his two years as a Buckeye – in which the Buckeyes are going to need Fields to return to form.
“To be honest, I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Fields said Monday. “So I think what happened in those (Northwestern and Indiana) games and me not playing as well as I wanted to, maybe God was sending me a message that I need to do more and work harder. So that’s kind of how I am looking at it. I am looking at it as a challenge.
“For this game, I have been preparing my butt off. I haven’t prepared like this the whole season, so maybe I played the way I did because God was just trying to tell me, for this game, that you need to lock in this game, you need to prepare for the game. Of course I was mad after the game, but now I’m just motivated.”
Fields’ teammates say they’ve seen that motivation from the way their quarterback has practiced.
“You can just tell, he has that look in his eye where he really wants to excel, and I believe that he is going to excel,” said Ohio State right guard Wyatt Davis.
Olave is expected to be back for Friday’s game, so that should help Fields get back on track. Whether this thumb will be 100 percent healthy is a bit more uncertain; both Fields and Day said Monday that he’ll be “fine,” but neither elaborated beyond that.
“I have been preparing my butt off. I haven’t prepared like this the whole season, so maybe I played the way I did because God was just trying to tell me, for this game, that you need to lock in this game, you need to prepare for the game.”– Justin Fields
Nonetheless, Ohio State coaches and players expressed nothing but confidence on Monday that Fields can make the plays the Buckeyes need him to make to have a chance to beat Clemson on Friday. And that depends in part of how the players around him perform, too.
“He's a tremendous player,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “I think his quarterback rating is still, I think, one of the all-time highs in the history of the game. So I think he will do well, but he will do better, as all quarterbacks do, when the surrounding parts do their job to help him.”
Seemingly, some of Fields’ struggles against Indiana and Northwestern stemmed from those defenses figuring out how to make him uncomfortable, and there might not be any team that’s more equipped to do that than Clemson, who’s known for blitzing constantly and ranks second in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision with 44 sacks this season. That makes preparation more important than ever for this week’s game, as Fields, Ryan Day and quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis look to fix the problems from the most recent game and prepare for the unique challenges Brent Venables’ defense could present.
Ultimately, Fields believes the key to his success will be his preparation leading up to the game and then executing upon that preparation once the game begins.
“You just have to stick to your reads and stick to what you learned in practice,” Fields said. “Of course you have to have a read key before the play, and just see what that read key does on that certain play, so if (a defender) rotates to the middle or if he comes down and rotates, then you just have to see that. Just pretty much go through your reads and stay calm in the pocket and just make plays under pressure.”
Day doesn’t want Fields to be worrying about trying to make a personal statement with his play on Friday. Ultimately, Day just wants Fields to play well enough for Ohio State to win the game, however that might happen.
“Right now, there's only one goal, win the game,” Day said. “It doesn't matter if you win 6-3. Doesn't matter if you win 52-51. Just win the game. I think that has to be the approach, not we're going to beat a team by 28 points, are we going to throw for 500 yards and be on the Heisman Trophy watch or whatever. It's win the game. If you win the game, you move on. That's what matters. So I think that's the focus.”
There’s no question, though, that Fields’ personal expectation is to be at his best as he and his teammates get the opportunity to play in the game they’ve been wanting to play all year long.
“That game hurt us a lot last year, so that’s kind of been our whole motivation this whole offseason, just getting a chance to play those guys again and getting this opportunity,” Fields said. “Of course, we know Clemson’s a great team. They have a great coaching staff, great players. So, we’re just excited to be on this stage with them and get another chance to play those guys.
“We know what we’re up against. We played these guys last year. We’re a motivated team, and we’ll be ready to go by Friday. I don’t really think I need to elaborate on that, we’re just ready to go.”