It Would be Smart for Ohio State to Rest Justin Fields vs. Wisconsin
Ohio State knew as early as January 16, and if not then, it certainly knew on April 18, that quarterback Justin Fields was the one player it could not afford to lose to an injury this season.
But although the Buckeyes had a cognitive awareness -- first when Tate Martell entered the transfer portal two weeks after the Rose Bowl, and three months later when Matthew Baldwin did the same -- it didn't fully know until Aug. 31 how essential it would be to keep Fields healthy.
That's the day Fields sped 51 yards for a touchdown on the Buckeyes' fourth offensive snap in their season-opener against Florida Atlantic.
Before that first quarter ended, Fields would throw three touchdown passes to complete a 28-point barrage in his first 15 minutes of action in his first college start.
Right then, all the concern head coach Ryan Day confessed about keeping Fields upright, about balancing the benefit of employing his rushing talents against the risk of exposing him to contact as a ball-carrier, acquired new significance.
Keeping Fields healthy no longer became about maintaining access to a quarterback who could help Ohio State win the Big Ten.
It became about preserving the health of a quarterback so talented he could win the Buckeyes a national championship.
That's why it's risky to start Fields, or even play him, Saturday in the conference championship game against Wisconsin.
Both Saturday at Michigan, and the week before against Penn State, Ohio State's team, coaches and fans have held their collective breaths when Fields went down injured, seriously, it seemed, at least momentarily.
He eventually popped to his feet both times and walked off, sparing pharmacies all over Ohio a run on antidepressants.
The announced diagnosis for Fields' injury is a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
Day said Tuesday he and Fields talk daily about the injury, but that "he'll be playing and we'll use him all 60 minutes" against Wisconsin.
That was the plan at Michigan until Fields went into the injury tent.
Panic raged for a commercial break, until Fox showed Fields walking off under his own power.
A few minutes later, after pulling on a clunky lineman's brace, he returned to scramble away from pressure and throw a 30-yard touchdown pass on his first play back.
All of Ohio exhaled.
Until the next time -- if there is a next time -- Fields doesn't get up.
Wisconsin sacked Fields five times in their 38-7 loss at Columbus on Oct. 26. It also sent him to the sidelines with back spasms after a hard hit on the goal line as he scored a touchdown.
Why not start backup Chris Chugunov on Saturday night and sit Fields, at least through two quarters, and re-assess at halftime?
Remember, Wisconsin didn't score in the first half at Columbus five weeks ago. What's the worst plausible scenario in which the Buckeyes might find themselves at the break in Lucas Oil Stadium?
Down 3-0, 7-0, or maybe 10-0?
It's more likely OSU would still be in control with Chugunov handing off to tailback J.K. Dobbins, who against a Wisconsin defense allowing less than 60 yards per-game rushing back in late-October ran for 8.2 per-carry, 163 overall and two touchdowns.
Dobbins gets some of that, maybe even much of that, because Fields provides a slippery run threat of his own and because he's thrown an insane 37 touchdown passes against only one interception.
It's unreasonable to expect anything like that from Chugunov, but it's also incorrect to assume he'd wet the bed upon being thrust into the spotlight.
Chugunov is a graduate transfer, so he's not an immature underclassman. He came to Ohio State in April of 2018, so he's been in Day's offensive system for two years.
He started three games as an undergrad at West Virginia, losing at home to Texas, at Oklahoma and then in the Heart of Dallas Bowl against Utah, so he's played many more meaningful snaps than the mop-up duty he received after OSU's repeated blowouts this season.
The downside of starting Chugunov is it increases the Buckeyes' chances of losing to Wisconsin, but so what?
Ohio State need not win this game -- this rematch -- to prove itself worthy of a Playoff berth.
There's no way the Committee is leaving OSU out if it loses to Wisconsin, particularly if Fields doesn't play.
There just aren't enough other viable Playoff contenders to edge in front of Ohio State at 12-1.
Besides, its dominance of all 12 opponents -- each vanquished by 11 points or more, 11 humbled by 24 or more -- is a resume-builder no other team can match.
Playing Chugunov against Wisconsin would also give him meaningful snaps against a quality opponent with OSU's first-team offense in a Big Ten title game.
Think those might prove useful in the Playoff if Chugunov is pressed into service by another Fields injury?
Assuming the worst from an OSU perspective -- a loss to Wisconsin, coupled with LSU and Clemson victories in their respective championship games -- a drop to No. 3 would likely mean a Playoff semifinal against reigning national champion Clemson.
That's the match-up everyone seemingly wants to avoid, but look at it this way: Would you prefer having a week to get ready for Clemson after winning a semifinal, or prefer having a month to get ready for Clemson in a semifinal?
There's also the chance LSU loses to Georgia while Ohio State is playing Wisconsin. If that happens, and Clemson wins, the Tigers would go to No. 1, Ohio State and Georgia would be No. 2 and No. 3 (the order doesn't matter), and LSU would drop to No. 4.
Ohio State would get the best of both worlds there, resting Fields and avoiding Clemson.
Unless Clemson loses, Ohio State could not expect to stay No. 1 if it rested Fields and lost to Wisconsin.
But losing to the Badgers won't prevent OSU from coming back to win the national championship.
Only getting Fields hurt, so he can't participate in the Playoff, would carry that consequence.
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