Protecting the ball may be Fields' best quality

Joey Kaufman
Justin Fields has yet to throw an interception in his college career, but the Ohio State quarterback will face a challenge Saturday against the Michigan State defense, which already has recorded six interceptions. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Justin Fields had to think about it for a moment.

When was the last time he threw an interception?

He realized it was on Oct. 6, 2017, in his second-to-last high school game, the same day he announced his commitment to Georgia.

Fields was leading Harrison, his high school in suburban Atlanta, to a 63-41 win over Sprayberry when he was picked off. It was a tipped pass snagged by a defender.

“I really couldn’t do anything about it,” Fields said.

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Nearly two years have passed since the interception, and Fields has remained largely mistake-free through his first month as Ohio State’s starting quarterback.

Along with all the head-turning highlights, ranging from scrambles out of the pocket to deep balls, the sophomore has yet to throw an interception.

He holds a 16-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio with 114 passes attempted.

“There's a couple that he threw in harm's way that maybe could have gone the other way,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said, “but they didn't. So he's got to keep making those good decisions, keep taking care of the ball.”

Most recruiting analysts raved about Fields’ arm strength and athleticism when he emerged as a decorated high school quarterback prospect. But so far he has also proved to be a polished passer, ahead of the curve as a first-time starter in college.

Fields credited the absence of interceptions to an emphasis placed by Day, a former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

“Coach Day puts it in my brain every day in practice, ‘Take care of the ball, take care of the ball,’” Fields said. “And that's really the plan to win. So when I'm on the field, I’m really thinking about making smart decisions and really just taking care of the ball, knowing the situation and down and distance, and kind of laying it out in my mind.”

His predecessor, Dwayne Haskins Jr., was picked off twice last season in his first five starts, and J.T. Barrett was intercepted five times in his first five starts when he debuted as a redshirt freshman in 2014.

The team most poised to challenge Fields’ streak might be Michigan State, which visits the Buckeyes for a prime-time matchup Saturday night.

The Spartans, who have long boasted one of the nation’s best defenses under veteran coach Mark Dantonio, have intercepted six passes this season, tied for eighth most in the nation, and have broken up 27 passes, ranking 16th.

“They're not super complicated,” Day said, “but they have answers to everything that you do. The minute you run a play, they're on top of it and they've got it defended the next play.”

Adversity will likely arrive for Fields at some point this season. He's prepared for it.

When he was intercepted against Sprayberry nearly two years ago, it became a blip on his Friday night performance. Fields shrugged it off and still threw five touchdowns passes.

The scenario has not arisen in a game this season. Fields said the only chance to respond has come in practices while matched up against the Buckeyes’ talented secondary.

The first-team offense faces the first-team defense in practices. The situation prompts Fields to throw toward targets that are covered by cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette.

Both are stingy.

If he is picked off by Michigan State or another Big Ten team in the following weeks, Fields expects he'll carry himself in the same manner.

He won’t fret.

“I probably won't treat it any different,” he said. “As coach Day says, you've just got to move on to the next play and worry about the next play. I’m not really going to dwell on it that much, and just play my game.”