INDIANAPOLIS — The look on Justin Fields face didn’t tell anything about Ohio State’s first double-digit deficit of the season.
The stoic stare from the sophomore quarterback didn’t say anything about the sprained MCL, how that impacted him or how it was holding up in the midst of a bruising first half in which he was sacked three times. It didn’t give any hints on how he would adjust to the Wisconsin defense that seemed to have the game plan needed to finally slow down the Heisman Trophy finalist like no other team has this season.
So after a disastrous first half which featured a fumble near the goal line and a lack of mobility from the dual-threat weapon, Fields kept the same face as he disappeared into the visitors locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium after 30 minutes of football that he wore out onto the field hours prior to begin his pregame warmup routine.
Lettermen Row assigned a reporter to watch every step the quarterback took on Saturday night with a Big Ten title on the line, and the demeanor for Fields never changed.
He doesn’t crack. He doesn’t flinch. His play may fluctuate — rarely — but the mindset won’t change. It didn’t shift when he could’ve smiled and laughed during one of the most statistically dominant offensive regular seasons in Ohio State history. Why would it revert to frustration at the first sign of adversity?
There was still a half to play.
‘We were not going to run that quarterback’
As he arrived off the team bus into the stadium, Fields appeared locked in as he scanned the turf and made his way into the dressing room.
When he came out wearing a bulky metal knee brace, one that should probably only be worn by offensive linemen, there was a sense of discomfort. But Fields jogged out with receivers and other skill players for warmups.
“Hey — bust [their] ass!”
That was the message in the huddle before he made his way over to his weighted yellow ball and the officially licensed NFL football he warms up with before every game. Why the NFL ball?
“I can’t tell,” Fields told Lettermen Row with a subtle smile. “It’s a secret.”
But as he threw, the knee brace kept bothering him. He was the last player on the field after warmups, spending extra time on the field zig-zagging and cutting with a football in hand, testing his mobility, especially in his plant leg before he even took a snap.
Fields and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich chatted throughout the pre-game session while Fields continued to grab and tug on the top of the brace. He knew he would be far less comfortable with the hunk of metal on his knee compared to the soft brace he wore — and got hurt wearing — the previous week in Ann Arbor.
He had to wear it, though. So while he continued to warm up, he also continued to tinker with it. It bothered him, but he maintained a certain focus that suggested he was locked in.
“In the game, you can’t really worry about what’s on your body,” he said in the week leading up to the Big Ten title game. “You have to go out there and worry about scoring and putting points up on the board. Just having this stuff like a knee brace or a different shoulder brace or whatever, I don’t think it affects how you’re playing. It might to a little extent, but at the end of the day, you have to go out there and make plays.”
Nevermind that head coach Ryan Day revealed after the game that the Buckeyes had no intentions of running with Fields at all. The signal-caller was ready to make plays, whatever way he could.
‘I struggled a little bit’
The signs were there. They foreshadowed how the sophomore quarterback with only 13 career starts may act when handling adversity.
Pick an example, and there are a few, as small as they were at the time. The various first quarters when the Buckeyes couldn’t move the ball, only to completely wreck an opponent in the second quarter. Go back to the Michigan State game on Oct. 5, when he threw his first — and still only — career interception. The cliche states that quarterbacks need to have a short memory. Fields takes that up a notch.
“I have mixed emotions about it because, aww, it was my first pick but it was also like, it’s football,” he said after that win. “So, it happens. I wasn’t really frustrated from it.”
But this wasn’t one interception with a 17-point third-quarter lead. This was a lack of offense over the course of an entire half in the biggest game of the season with a College Football Playoff berth on the line. That’s adversity.
Before Fields even had a chance, something seemed off. Ohio State’s nationally-touted defense gave up a quick score to a Wisconsin team it had shut down for an entire game earlier this season.
That certainly didn’t bother Fields, who was relaxed and ready, arms spread on the back of the bench, sitting beside K.J. Hill and waiting for his turn with the ball.
Once he got the ball, everything seemed even more off.
It’s not that Ohio State wasn’t moving the ball. Fields and the offense seemed to find Wisconsin’s side of the field easily, then stall. The first Buckeyes drive ended at the Badgers 34-yard line. The next was punted from Wisconsin’s 42. After those failures to score, Fields sat on the bench, wearing his headset to talk to coaches upstairs, once meeting with Ohio State coach and quarterback specialist Day, once chatting with Hill and Garrett Wilson, among others. What happened?
The Buckeyes were driving. But then they weren’t.
Things seemed to click on the third drive. Trailing by two scores, Fields guided the offense into the red zone. Points were coming until they weren’t. Fields coughed the ball up in the red zone, a back-breaking turnover in a huge moment.
That’s when the calming presence of the first-year starter kicked into gear on the sideline. He could have hung his head in disgust as the first half snowballed. But he didn’t crack, and by the end of the second quarter, J.K. Dobbins punched in a short touchdown run to trim the Badgers lead.
Fields didn’t celebrate much. There was still work to do.
‘Going back to my roots’
This wasn’t the first time Ohio State trailed in a game. But this was the first time it trailed at the half, — and by two scores, too. As Fields came out of the locker room, he knew.
“I struggled a little bit in the first half, but I just knew to myself that I was a better player than what I was actually playing,” he said. “Just kind of going back to my roots, getting confidence back, getting a rhythm. I think that kind of helped me a lot in the second half.”
What helped him was a stunning, arching pass that was thrown off his left leg — the one with the brace he kept messing with, even after he found that rhythm — to Chris Olave on the first drive of the half, a pass that extended the drive and ultimately helped Ohio State cash in with Fields’ first touchdown toss of the night, a great ball and an even better one-handed snag by Jeremy Ruckert.
Finally, after 32 minutes of football, Fields ran to the end zone and flexed as he yelled in jubilation at Ruckert.
And then he calmed down, went to the sideline and went back to work for the next drive. He wasn’t there long, because the Buckeyes defense forced a quick three-and-out, followed by a botched punt. The Buckeyes took over from there.
Once Fields fired a touchdown pass to Hill later in the early stages of the fourth quarter, Ohio State regained the lead, and the game was effectively over. The Buckeyes were handling the Badgers up front — something that didn’t happen in the first half.
“I just think the team knew we already had it in us,” Fields said. “I’m just glad the world got to see what this team was made of. I’m glad it happened.”
Glad the win happened. Glad the adversity happened. That’s the approach Fields takes. As happy as he was to win the Big Ten title, his same demeanor showed up in his postgame embrace on the field with center Josh Myers.
He was content with hanging out on the field behind the stage until he was told to step up onto the platform, where Archie Griffin would present him with the Big Ten title game MVP trophy. Then he got on stage, took the award from Griffin and fielded a question or two from FOX’s Joel Klatt.
“Are you nervous right now?” Klatt said.
“I’m nervous right now,” Fields said as he laughed. “I’ve never had this feeling before.”
Justin Fields ‘handles it well’
Back in September, just three games into his career as a starter, the special traits were apparent from Fields. He had all the tools. But he still had a huge factor to learn.
“What he’s going to quickly learn here is that at Ohio State, the more you win, the more the stakes get higher and higher, and the more is expected,” Day said about Fields in September. “That all comes with it, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders. I think he handles it well. He’s got good poise, and he and Mike [Yurcich] got to get in that room and just keep on working on getting better.”
He worked on getting better. And he leaned into the growing expectations.
When the Buckeyes travel to Arizona later this month for the Fiesta Bowl and a chance to play for a national title, the expectation for Fields will again grow, maybe larger than ever as he competes against fellow class of 2018 superstar Trevor Lawrence and Clemson.
A national title will be on the line. But if a double-digit lead at halftime of the Big Ten championship game doesn’t faze him, neither will a sold-out College Football Playoff game.
Because the look on Fields face doesn’t tell anything about how confident and level-headed he is as the quarterback of arguably the country’s top team. Not when he’s faced with a deficit. Not when he’s winning conference championships.
It certainly won’t show if he beats the reigning national champs. His goals are more lofty than the Big Ten and the Fiesta Bowl.
And while he chases a national title, Justin Fields will remain the same.