NEW ORLEANS, La. — His ribs ached. Or at least it looked like they ached. They should ache.
Did you see the hit? The hit. Clemson linebacker James Skalski barreled his helmet into Justin Fields’s right side like a submarine torpedo into the broadside of a navy vessel. He sat crumpled on the ground. A few plays later, he was back on that same turf, his own offensive lineman peeling him from it. He clutched his right side.
It had to be hard to breathe, right? To inhale. To exhale. Forget about throwing a football. Forget about twisting and turning, running or even jogging.
It hurt. It had to.
But here was Fields, clearly aching, hurting badly, throwing missiles and dropping dimes, carving through one of the nation’s best defensive units and leading his Ohio State team to a rollicking 49–28 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal here in the Big Easy.
This seemed like one for the haters. The Buckeyes, and Fields most of all, appeared like a team possessed and driven by weeks of criticism.
You don’t belong here on this stage.
You didn’t play enough games.
Heck, you shouldn’t even be ranked in the top 10!
That last one came from Clemson’s own coach, Dabo Swinney, a voter in the coaches poll who ranked the Buckeyes No. 11 in his final tally.
In fact, afterward, Ohio State receiver Garrett Wilson fired off a not-so-subtle shot at Swinney’s ranking. “So does that mean they like #18 or sumn, Or is that not how this thing work?” the tweet read.
Take that, Dabo.
Take that, doubters.
Take that, all of you Big Ten haters.
A conference that has endured quite possibly the most embarrassing of any NCAA entity in this COVID-19 season of 2020, the Big Ten will be represented in Miami at the national championship game. A date with the SEC’s vaunted powerhouse, Alabama, awaits.
The Buckeyes are already an early touchdown underdog. That will only help dump more fuel on the fire that’s been raging in Columbus for weeks now—ever since the Buckeyes completed the season having played roughly half of the games (six) as the other three playoff teams (11).
“However many games ... so many people doubted us,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Now, we have the opportunity to write one of the best stories in college football history.”
Ohio State justified its place in the postseason with a bashing on the bayou. And the Buckeyes threw the proverbial monkey off of their back. They had lost to Clemson in all four games played in the series, including last year’s semifinal loss in Arizona in which they blew a 16–0 lead.
There was no blowing this one, no big comeback from the boys in Orange, just an offensive blur of scarlet and gray. Ohio State finished with 639 yards of offense (nearly 400 by halftime).
Trey Sermon, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma who is replacing injured running back Master Teague, plowed for 193 yards rushing, and Fields, throbbing ribs and all, knifed through the Clemson secondary for 385 yards. He threw as many touchdowns as incompletions (six).
He did most of that damage after the crown of Skalski’s helmet splintered his right side, smacking him just below the armpit and above the hip. Ouch.
It hurt. Even from 10 floors up in the Superdome press box.
It hurt. Even from hundreds of miles away watching on TV.
“My body is pretty beat up right now, but I'm happy,” Fields said afterward. “This is a feeling above no other. I know my body is going to be hurting tomorrow morning. That's what pushed me—all the things we sacrificed as a team. It got me through the game."
Fields said his “whole right side” is in pain, from his right hip and up through his torso. Doctors gave him “one or two” shots in the medical tent before he returned to the field, he said.
“Even throwing 10 yards, it would hurt,” he said. “It’s the game of football we play. I signed up for it.”
Skalski’s shot came with six minutes left in the second quarter and Ohio State up 21–14. Two plays after being rocked, he tossed a dart for a touchdown to Chris Olave. A series later, he threw another one for a 35–14 halftime lead. And then came another and then another. After the hit to his ribs, Fields completed 11 of his next 14 passes for 222 yards and four touchdowns.
Afterward, Swinney called the effort “awesome,” and Day praised his quarterback. After the hit, coach and quarterback had an exchange.
“He looks at me ‘You going to be able to make it?’” Day said. “He said, ‘I don’t have a choice—I have to.’”
And then came the touchdown.
“He throws a frozen rope and he’s holding himself and I’m thinking to myself, ‘This kid is tough.’”
It was as courageous of an outing as you’ll see in football. Late in the fourth quarter, in fact, Fields took a sack, toppling over on his right side. He lifted himself off the dome’s artificial turf, pausing on all fours and then, as if not to show weakness, exploded into the air as if nothing was wrong.
“I took a big shot,” Fields said during the on-field Sugar Bowl trophy presentation, “but what kept me going was my brothers. The love for them.”
And so now comes the big question: How healthy will he be for the game against Alabama? He was healthy enough after Friday’s game to help hoist up the heavy Sugar Bowl trophy. Day says he’ll get a medical assessment on his quarterback late Friday night or Saturday morning.
He’ll be sore Saturday, for sure.
But maybe not as hurt as the team he beat. Clemson came in as a touchdown favorite, a team whose only loss was without its starting quarterback. And whose coach thought the Buckeyes shouldn’t be here at all. Afterward, Swinney was asked if he regretted the ranking.
No, he said.
As time ticked down in Friday’s game, a chant came booming from the Ohio State fans in attendance.
Sure, years from now, maybe this will be viewed as the Dabo Game. But don’t let that storyline distract you from the real story here.
This game belongs to Justin Fields and his ribs of steel.
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