Rob Oller | In a knee brace, Justin Fields cements his status as a legend in Ohio State-Michigan lore
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Legends are born of this. Of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields emerging from a sideline medical tent wearing a knee brace, re-entering the game and on his first play back throwing a 30-yard touchdown pass while rolling to his left.
“A magical moment,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day called it. “A Heisman moment.”
Ohio State vs. Michigan is made of such moments. It doesn’t matter if it was Chic Harley leading the Buckeyes to their first win against the Wolverines in 1919, with Michigan coach Fielding H. Yost calling Harley “one of the finest little machines I have ever seen.”
It doesn’t matter if it was Ray Griffin’s interception in 1975 or J.T. Barrett’s controversial fourth-down conversion in 2016 or Jim Laughlin’s punt block in 1979. Pick a favorite. Or least favorite: Desmond Howard striking the Heisman pose in 1991 or Shawn Springs’ slip in 1996.
Good or bad, ultimately The Game is about The Plays we remember. And Fields’ touchdown throw to Garrett Wilson after aggravating an MCL sprain suffered on his last snap of the Penn State game will go down as the most talked-about play in Saturday’s 56-27 win at Michigan.
No. 1 Ohio State held a fairly comfortable 35-16 lead against the No. 13 Wolverines in the third quarter — the pending eighth consecutive win against UM reinforcing a sense of superiority among Buckeye Nation — when Fields got folded in half after completing a 15-yard pass to Austin Mack. The quarterback’s left knee bent a direction a knee should not bend.
Fields didn’t get up.
That sentence scares OSU fans almost as much as “Ryan Day is leaving for the NFL.” (No worries, Day says he isn’t going anywhere.) No offense to backup quarterback Chris Chugunov, but comparatively speaking there is no offense without Fields.
Fields rose after a minute and hobbled off the field and into a blue medical tent, where about 112,071 interested parties inside the Big House focused their attention. Somewhere, a child tugged at her father’s sleeve: “Is our season over, Daddy?” Not wanting to lie, the father answered, “We’ll have to see,” as a single tear streamed down his face.
But he knew. Everyone knew. Without Fields … darkness. Anyway, this all happened at exactly 2:25 p.m. Did you feel the earth shake?
And then … Walter Brennan became John Wayne (Google them cowboys, young’uns). Fields exited the tent with a knee brace the size of a mini-Eiffel Tower and on his first play back, gimp-scrambled to his left and fired a dart to Wilson in the end zone for a 42-16 lead with 3:46 left in the third quarter.
Game. Set. Match. Michigan tacked on 11 more points, but it was mere window dressing. Fields threw one more touchdown pass and tailback J.K. Dobbins ended the scoring with a 33-yard touchdown run.
Day, whose respect for Fields grows with every hard tackle the quarterback bounces up from, was more impressed by his quarterback than ever.
“For him to take that injury and … make a throw that we didn’t design that way,” Day said. “For him to ad-lib and make that throw — as good a throw as I’ve seen in a long time.”
Day kept gushing.
“His heart, his character and his competitive toughness is as good as I’ve ever been around,” he said. “I’ve never been around a tougher quarterback than this guy.”
Fields downplayed the moment, per usual.
“I just needed to switch knee braces,” he said, explaining what happened inside the medical tent, where trainers removed a lighter cloth brace for the grocery cart contraption Fields dislikes but needed; the same type worn by offensive linemen.
“I got back out there and wanted to show the team I was tough,” he said.
Fields showed more than that. He provided Ohio State fans with a mental video they will not soon forget. Another gift to the best rivalry in college football.