The Ohio State quarterback room has been wildly talented for a decade now.
The discussion around which Buckeye quarterback is the best of them all, and perhaps the best in program history given the individual and team success during that stretch, is a fun topic. Justin Fields certainly has had some memorable moments during his tenure in Columbus that put him squarely in that discussion.
But he's never had a performance quite like he did Friday night against the Clemson Tigers.
Fields' performance in the College Football Playoff Semifinal was akin to your favorite superhero. He was bruised, beaten and battered - most notably when he was on the receiving end of a vicious hit from James Skalski that resulted in a targeting foul and an ejection for the leader of the Tiger defense.
In obvious pain, Fields refused to leave the game. He missed the mandatory one play after leaving the game with an injury, but came right back in to throw a touchdown pass to Chris Olave on the next play.
In fact, after taking that hit, Fields threw for 222 yards and four scores. He finished the game 22-for-28 for 385 yards and an Ohio State bowl-record six touchdowns.
According to Pro Football Focus writer Seth Galina, Ohio State's passing attack was the most effective it had been in the last six seasons. And they did it to a Clemson defense that never gets burned like that.
The Bucks' EPA per play on passes was .93 — almost one unexpected point added per pass. It is by far their highest mark in the last six seasons, with a 2017 game at Nebraska coming in second at .89. That .93 was the 10th-highest in a single game this season. As for Clemson’s defense, it was their worst day in a very long time. Over the last six seasons, nothing even remotely comes close to them allowing .93 EPA per play. The second highest is Alabama in 2015 with only .43. In fact, in these six years, Clemson has only given up positive EPA per play via the pass 17 total times in 82 games. It’s almost like Clemson forgot to actually watch Ohio State’s film, regardless of how many games the Buckeyes played.
That's mind-numbing. The Buckeyes basically added one expected point every time they dropped back to pass.
Ryan Day tried to put Fields' performance into context after the game.
"The conversations we had was, you go out and play good in this game and you win this game, nobody is going to remember the Big Ten championship game; they'll remember this one. And they'll remember it for a long time in the history of Ohio State football. And what does he do? He goes out and he throws six touchdown passes. He takes a really tough hit. He just looked at me, and I said, "How are you doing? Are you going to be able to make it?" He said, "I don't have a choice; I have to."
At that point, we had to figure out what he could and couldn't do for a while. We kind of figured that part of it out. He couldn't do everything, but what a gutsy performance, what a tough and special young man Justin Fields is."
Consider the stakes:
- College Football Playoff Semifinal against a team that you've never beaten and has especially had your number in these games the last few years
- All of the external noise (including the bulletin board material coming from Clemson themselves), and many national experts saying you don't belong in the Playoff
- Playing against arguably the best college quarterback of this generation in Trevor Lawrence, who likely finished his college career 34-2
- A global pandemic that forced spring practices to be cancelled, quarantines, shortened preseason camp, and a truncated schedule resulting from a season cancelled and reinstated ... all while the SEC and ACC never really altered course
- Fields was coming off his least inspiring performance of the season, by a wide margin
- Fields was trying to exorcise his own personal demons from the last year's loss to Clemson, where he threw a game-sealing interception in the end zone in the final moments
- He played through obvious pain and wound up breaking OSU postseason records
The reality is, Fields led Ohio State to one of its all-time greatest victories in 131 years of football.
And furthermore, in my opinion, we may have just witnessed the greatest individual performance in Buckeye history. That's not hyperbole.
While that statement could be debated, here's one that can't: (thus far) that was the signature moment of Justin Fields' college career and he has become fully immortalized as one of the all-time great Ohio State Buckeyes.
We'll see what he can do for an encore in Miami on Jan. 11.
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