Justin Fields and Ohio State earn payback a year in the making

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2010.
  • Graduate of the University of Florida.

NEW ORLEANS — They told us this was the game they wanted. This was the game they started dreaming about in the locker room on a cold desert night a year ago. This was the game the Ohio State Buckeyes saw slipping from their fingers when the Big Ten postponed the season, the one they dreamed about again when the league reversed course and decided to play.

This was not a secret. It was a bold and loud “we’re coming to get you” promise, and maybe Clemson should have listened. Because Ohio State clearly telegraphed what was to come in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Friday night, a 49-28 blowout so extensive the Buckeyes treated Clemson like a football startup.

Sure, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney raised some eyebrows and rankled the Buckeyes when he ranked Ohio State No. 11 in his final coaches poll, then doubled down and defended it because he did not think six games was worthy of playoff inclusion.

Maybe in a subliminal way, he wanted nothing to do with a rematch.

What that highly publicized and over-scrutinized ranking did was serve as a reminder about why the Buckeyes wanted this game so badly, about the pain and frustration that stayed with them after a 29-23 loss in the playoff semifinal last year in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a defeat that ended when Justin Fields threw an interception in the end zone on a miscommunication with receiver Chris Olave, fueling Fields to “prepare for this game like I’ve never prepared for a game before.”

On Friday night, Fields turned an entire offseason of work into the best performance of his life, throwing a Sugar Bowl-record six touchdown passes — four of them after an excruciating hit to his right side that left him wincing in pain on nearly every play. Fields said he took pain-killing shots and never received a clear diagnosis for the exact injury. And still finished with 427 total yards.

That performance — and the way Fields gutted it out despite feeling pain with every snap — proved what the past 365 days have all been targeted toward, with every rep in the weight room and every snap in practice.

“A lot of guys left that field feeling like they let one get away,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of last year’s loss to Clemson. “In life, you don’t typically get an opportunity to get a second chance, but you can’t miss the second time. So I don’t know what we’re more excited about, the fact that we have a chance to play for a national championship or the fact that we avenged that loss.”

It is easy to forget now, but if 2020 unfolded the way our way-too-early preseason rankings projected, the Buckeyes would in all likelihood have been the No. 1 team in the country, with Fields and Olave back, along with stellar offensive and defensive lines and elite players up and down the roster.

But with the coronavirus pandemic raging and medical uncertainty clouding decision making, the Big Ten opted to postpone the season in August. Near tears, Ohio State center Josh Myers told ESPN, “This was supposed to be an incredible year for us. This was supposed to be a national championship for us. This was supposed to be the year that everything we dreamed of came true. This is probably the most talented team I’ve ever been a part of. All of us had our eyes set on the national championship and of course hopefully a rematch with Clemson.”

By the time the Big Ten reversed course and Ohio state kicked off in late October, Clemson had already played five games and appeared to be headed for another playoff.

But what we saw once the Buckeyes began their season was a team that looked nothing close to what we expected. Fields seemed unsure of himself and started uncharacteristically turning the ball over. They looked shaky against Indiana and even shakier in the Big Ten title game against Northwestern, leaving many to conclude this Ohio State team — and Fields in particular — would not measure up against a veteran Clemson team with the future No. 1 pick in Trevor Lawrence and a recent mastery in the games they played against each other.

Add to that a thumb injury Fields sustained in the Big Ten championship game, and the questions and doubts seemed valid.

But the team we saw Friday looked nothing like the one that puttered through the Big Ten. The team we saw Friday looked emboldened, aggressive and so sure of itself that it felt like the clock had been turned back to 2019. The offensive and defensive lines dominated so thoroughly, Lawrence became the afterthought.

It was Fields who took the star turn, looking every bit the top 5 NFL pick he was projected to be before his earlier struggles. Among his six touchdown passes was a gorgeous 56-yarder placed perfectly in stride to Olave — the counterpoint to what went so horribly wrong in Arizona.

“We were just talking about all week how this game can make an ever‑lasting impact,” Fields said. “And this game controls our legacy. So we stayed out at practice and threw routes on that one roll‑out touchdown. We probably went over that about 20 times in practice one day. So we knew that was a call that we were going to get into the red zone. And we executed it well.”

In hindsight, it should not have been as surprising as it felt to see Ohio State roll up and down the field while continually punishing Lawrence and Tigers RB Travis Etienne. Ohio State was the more physical team a year ago, too, and frustrated the Clemson receivers in similar ways as we saw tonight.

But what got the defense a year ago was the way Lawrence surprised them as a runner — he had a career-high 107 yards rushing. This year? Lawrence had minus-8; Etienne had 32.

“Obviously, we struggled last year with the quarterback run and gave up some big plays there,” Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland said. “So that is something we really took from it and learned from that.”

Day called a masterful game, informed with lessons learned in the loss to Clemson a year ago, and perhaps emboldened because of it. But the entire game plan was jeopardized when Fields got hit in the second quarter, leaving him down on the turf in obvious pain for several minutes.

When he came to the sideline, Day asked him what happened. Fields said his side hurt. Day asked, “How are you doing? Are you going to be able to make it?”

Fields looked at him.

“I don’t have a choice,” Fields said. “I have to.”

Fields knows he will feel sore in the morning, but the pain is worth it, because the Buckeyes won their first playoff game since 2014 and now have a shot to win another national championship. He will need to be at his best once again for the Buckeyes to have a chance to beat Alabama in Miami on Jan. 11.

But those questions are for another day. For Friday night, Fields and Ohio State finally beat Clemson and are right where they believed they should be — despite the adversity and the stops and the starts. Day and his players pushed hard to play this season because they knew a moment like this was waiting for them.

Now they want one more.

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