It would be indecorous for the quarterback of an aspiring championship team to walk off the field at halftime, so Justin Fields did what he could to muster a jog. Each step delivered a jolt, but he continued, because 20 minutes of rest beckoned from the Ohio State locker room no matter how much pain the journey might contain.
There had been six minutes left in the first half of the College Football Playoff semifinal between the Buckeyes and Clemson when Fields dashed past the line of scrimmage toward the first-down marker. He nearly made it, but instead was felled by an unplanned encounter with the top of linebacker James Skalski’s orange helmet. It seared into his right rib cage, all but leaving a paw logo tattooed on his torso.
Skalski, appropriately, was flagged for targeting and ejected from his second consecutive CFP game.
Fields remained prone on the turf longer than the running time of “The English Patient.” His continued involvement in this game seemed no more promising after he got to his feet, nor after he returned following a single play on the sideline, nor after he immediately threw a sizzling touchdown pass to give his team a two-score lead, nor after he got a congratulatory shoulder slap from sophomore wideout Garrett Wilson. Because the misery caused by each of these activities screamed through his facemask.
OHIO STATE-CLEMSON: Score, highlights from semifinal game
A couple hours later, Fields had accumulated 385 passing yards and six touchdowns, earning a date in the CFP national championship game against No. 1 Alabama on Jan. 11. He had thrown touchdown passes of 56 yards to Chris Olave and 45 yards to Jameson Williams. He managed to stick around long enough to accept the victory-formation snaps that concluded OSU’s 49-28 victory, and even to share a celebratory body-bump as the final seconds lapsed.
“That hit really took a toll on me,” Fields told ESPN afterward. “My ribs were killing me pretty much all game. But what pushed me through was the love for my brothers. I would do anything for these guys.”
Early in this season, Fields was considered a strong Heisman Trophy candidate and a lock to be the second quarterback chosen in the 2021 NFL Draft, behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. But then Indiana happened. The Northwestern game in the Big Ten title game was even more of a disappointment. The Heisman slipped out of reach and the draft analysts began finding flaws.
Fields remained focused on what mattered. And if you don’t think what mattered on this day was victory against Clemson and advancement to the CFP final, then you did not see him fight through enormous discomfort instead of opting out of the second half.
Coach Ryan Day said he asked Fields whether he could continue following that hit. According to Day, Fields’ response was, “‘I don’t have a choice. I have to.’ We had to figure out what he could and couldn’t do for a while. He couldn’t do everything. But what a tough and gutsy performance.”
Day acknowledged, though, that Fields was bothered by how he performed even in winning the Big Ten championship. He was only 12 of 27 for 114 yards and two interceptions. “A lot of people were talking poorly about him as a QB,” Day told reporters. “And that bothered him.” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said he thought Fields was getting stuck too often on his primary receiver. Dane Brugler of The Athletic mentioned on Twitter issues with Fields’ “internal clock.”
Against Clemson, Fields was like a Patek Philippe.
He threw only six incomplete passes in 28 attempts. He averaged 5.3 yards on his eight rushing attempts. They were not playing against the same defense but, while sharing the field with the presumptive No. 1 NFL pick, Fields blew Lawrence away with his performance. His Clemson counterpart was 33 of 48 for 400 yards of empty calories, throwing one interception and fumbling three times.
“I prepared for this game like I never prepared before,” Fields said. “I think that showed on the field.
“I definitely had an edge for this game, preparing for this game in practice.”
Fields said he didn”t have a diagnosis for what occurred to his midsection following Skalski’s hit. “It’s pretty much my whole right torso that’s messed up,” he said. He told reporters he “took a shot or two” in the medical tent and then endeavored to continue.
Each throw from that point on, and there were 15 more before the clock expired, concluded with a dash of agony. It didn’t matter if he was tossing it 10 yards or firing a bomb 50 yards to the end zone: Both hurt. “I would just not worry about that during the play and just worry about the pain after the throw,” Fields said.
“Something like that is expected coming from a guy like him,” All-America guard Wyatt Davis told reporters. “He’s a great leader, a great teammate, and I’m happy I can call him my brother. He took some shots today, and especially on that one, I had no doubt if he could, he would continue.”
Clemson had held Notre Dame to 263 total yards in the ACC championship game. The Buckeyes nearly tripled that, with Fields accounting for more than 400 himself.
“My body’s pretty beat up right now, but I’m happy. My teammates are happy. And this is a feeling like no other,” Fields said. “That’s what pushed me. I was just thinking all the things we sacrificed as a team, and that’s really what got me through the whole game.”
Victory is the greatest of painkillers.