Ohio State Perhaps Lost National Title in Win vs. Penn State
Ohio State's hopes for an unbeaten season ended with a loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, but its chances to win the national championship might have expired before that.
With hindsight being flawless, and the 2 1/2-week interval since the Fiesta Bowl providing perspective, OSU's best chance for a title might have taken a debilitating hit before allowing a 94-yard, four-play drive in the final minutes and before quarterback Justin Fields' game-ending interception.
Head coach Ryan Day's retrospective on the 2019 season this week hinted at several circumstances that arose to conspire against the Buckeyes in Glendale, Az., in the 29-23 loss that stopped them short of a trip to the CFP championship game.
Each of the following circumstances exacted a toll and leaves a lingering question about how things could have unfolded differently:
Nov. 20 vs. Penn State: Fields' sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee trying to pick up a first down on a fourth-and-5 pass play with 2:23 left and OSU in front by 11 points.
- Day said he doesn't regret the decision to go for the first down in that situation and would do so again, but if he had punted or attempted a field goal and Fields never been injured...well, we'll never know.
Nov. 27 vs. Michigan: Fields aggravated the MCL sprain when a teammate fell into his knee while pass-blocking. He returned to throw a touchdown pass to Garrett Wilson on the first snap after being cleared the play.
- While that TD provided Fields what Day called, "a Heisman moment," how healthy might he have been without the freak circumstance of having the injury worsened by his own teammate, while trying to protect him?
Dec. 7 vs. Wisconsin: Fields' injury coming out of the Michigan game kept him out of practice most of the week leading up to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. "I think it’s very hard for a college quarterback to play at a high level without practicing," Day said.
That might explain why Fields fumbled away a scoring chance inside the Wisconsin 10-yard line in the first half, and why OSU fell into a 21-7 halftime hole before rallying for a 34-21 victory.
- After that game, Ohio State dropped from No. 1 in the CFP rankings to No. 2, getting passed by LSU, and thus drew Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl instead of a Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma. What if the Buckeyes had won impressively vs. Wisconsin thanks to a healthier Fields, drawn the Sooners, won easily, and then had two more weeks for its quarterback to heal for the LSU-Clemson winner?
Day doesn't know, and can never know, nor will he ever know whether a healthy Fields could have made the difference against Clemson had he been a more viable running threat like he was all season.
Fields gained only 13 net yards on 14 carries in the Fiesta Bowl, and even on his long run of the game, a 21-yarder, he was looking to get on the ground early to avoid injury.
Remember, Fields had 10 rushing touchdowns in OSU's first nine games, but none after he suffered his injury against Penn State.
If Fields could have run freely against Clemson, like its quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, did against the Buckeyes, Day might have witnessed the national championship game from the Ohio State sideline and not on television.
"It was hard to watch," he said. "I'm not going to lie. It was very difficult. I told the team and the coaches 'I want everybody to watch that game,'" as hard as it was going to be, 'from beginning to end,' and then think about how badly they want to get back in that game next year, back in that situation to get to that game.
"And then, 'What are they willing to do? What are they willing to sacrifice to get there?' When I was watching the game, that's what I was thinking."
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