I think there’s probably something messed up inside of Justin Fields right now. Midway through the second quarter of Ohio State’s College Football Playoff semifinal game against Clemson, Tigers linebacker James Skalski launched into the Buckeyes quarterback with his helmet, prompting a targeting penalty and forcing Skalski to be ejected.
Have you ever watched a YouTube compilation of body-shot knockouts? They are deeply upsetting, as boxers with iron chins are brought to their knees by wounds you need an X-ray to see. That’s how Fields looked after being speared in the side with a hunk of metal. And the pain clearly stuck with him. He appeared in agony while taking routine tosses to stay warm. He struggled mounting an exercise bike on the sideline. He could barely move on the field, his trademark escapability all but gone. “My ribs were killing me pretty much all game,” Fields told ESPN later. He said he needed “multiple shots” to stay in the game.
It seemed obvious that Ohio State needed to bench Fields. He was a sitting duck behind an offensive line missing multiple starters, and was going up against a defense that had recorded the second-most sacks in college football. It felt like the Buckeyes could cost themselves their season—and Fields his future—by sending him out there wobbling and grimacing.
But through the pain, Fields put together one of the greatest college football passing performances of all time. He went 22-of-28 for 385 yards with six touchdowns—four of which came after the hit. It looked like he could hardly flinch without triggering waves of pain, and yet he torqued his bruised body to throw a pair of touchdown passes that traveled 50-plus yards in the air:
WOW! JUSTIN FIELDS LET IT FLY FOR A 56-YARD TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/9z8zy0qEJC— ESPN (@espn) January 2, 2021
Ohio State came into Friday’s Sugar Bowl as seven-point underdogs against Clemson. The Tigers had been to four national championship games in the past five years, winning two; Ohio State hadn’t been to a national title game since winning the inaugural playoff in 2014. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was coming off a flawless outing against Notre Dame in which he accounted for more than 400 total yards with three touchdowns; Fields was coming off a shaky showing against Northwestern in which he’d gone just 12-of-27 passing. Yet thanks to Fields’s monster performance and running back Trey Sermon’s 254 total yards, the Buckeyes beat Clemson 49-28, the Tigers’ biggest loss since 2014. It seems possible that Ohio State was fueled by Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s decision to rank Ohio State 11th in his final coaches’ poll ballot.
Fields’s heroics are just the latest chapter in his ongoing rivalry with Lawrence. These two quarterbacks have always been pitted against each other, and always will be. It was Lawrence against Fields back in 2018, when scouts couldn’t agree who was the best high school recruit in the country. (The 247Sports composite rankings, which compile a variety of recruiting service scores into one rating, gave Lawrence a 0.9999 rating and Fields a 0.9998 rating.) It will be Lawrence against Fields this April, when the two are expected to compete to be the top pick in the NFL draft. (Lawrence seems virtually certain to go no. 1.) The college portion of their rivalry was lopsided for a while: Lawrence won the national title as a true freshman, while Fields languished on the bench at Georgia. (His Bulldogs tenure is best remembered for a hilariously bad fake punt; Georgia, which cycled through quarterbacks this season, certainly wishes it had held onto him.) Fields transferred to Ohio State and played exceptionally—but threw a rare, critical late interception in last season’s semifinal against Clemson.
But Fields likely just ended Lawrence’s college career with a stunning explosion. Entering Friday, Clemson’s defense had 13 interceptions and just 11 passing touchdowns allowed over its first 11 games of the season. Then Fields picked the Tigers apart for six touchdowns, tied for the second most in any bowl game. Fields had as many touchdowns as incompletions. Ohio State racked up 639 yards of total offense, slightly more than the 631 Joe Burrow and LSU tallied against Clemson in last year’s national title game. The Buckeyes averaged 8.87 yards per play, just shy of the most Clemson has ever allowed in a game under Swinney. (Florida State had 8.89 yards per play in a 2012 game.)
Clemson punted five times—and all five punts were followed by Ohio State touchdown drives. At one point, the Buckeyes had five straight 75-yard touchdown drives, something no other team did in a game all season. Field position didn’t matter; Fields did.
Fields didn’t play like he normally does after the injury. He’s normally a dynamic runner, and had 53 yards on the ground at the time Skalski hit him. He actually lost yardage the rest of the way due to sacks, finishing with 42 rushing yards. But the Fields we saw after the injury—a player capable of dismantling one of the sport’s best defenses with just one facet of his game—is the most impressive version of Fields we’ve ever seen.
Next up for the Buckeyes is Alabama, who will be the Vegas favorites in the national championship game. Bama has pieced together a season that ranks among the most dominant in the history of the sport. But given what Fields did Friday, it’s clear the Buckeyes stand a chance against anyone.
There is probably something messed up inside of Fields; some bone or organ is perhaps in some place it shouldn’t be. But there is also something inside him that allowed him to play at an impossibly high level even as he experienced immense pain. His beautiful and horrifying performance will forever live on in college football lore.