After cancellations, Ohio State's Justin Fields falls back in Heisman Trophy race
In this year’s unusual Heisman Trophy race, Justin Fields faced a big obstacle.
A delayed start to the Big Ten football season due to the coronavirus pandemic left Ohio State with a reduced schedule and fewer opportunities for its star quarterback to impress voters. He didn’t play his first game until late October.
Other top candidates began weeks earlier, seizing on a sizable head start.
But Fields, the only returning Heisman finalist, wasted little time in finding a place as a favorite as soon as he stepped onto the Ohio Stadium turf for his debut. He threw as many touchdown passes as incompletions over his first three games.
His challenge has been remaining among the frontrunners. Two of his past three games were canceled due to virus-related outbreaks, and in his only appearance, he was intercepted three times.
The setbacks have left him as more of a long shot to capture college football’s most prestigious award ahead of the approaching voting deadline of Dec. 21. At best, only three games remain for the Buckeyes, including a trip to Michigan State this weekend that remains tenuous after the spike in coronavirus cases prompted Ohio State to cancel last Saturday’s game at Illinois.
“He's been hurt more than anybody by these cancellations just because he had less opportunities to begin with,” said Cory McCartney, an Atlanta-based sportswriter who wrote a recent book about the Heisman Trophy.
It might already be too late to catch either Alabama quarterback Mac Jones or Florida quarterback Kyle Trask over the homestretch. In recent weeks, the Southeastern Conference passers, who are among the national leaders in passing yards and touchdowns, have sat atop most straw polls and betting odds lists, turning the competition into a two-man race.
This week’s USA TODAY Network survey of Heisman voters showed Trask and Jones as the heavy favorites, while Fields had fallen into sixth place, only three weeks after he had sat in a close second behind Jones.
Dave Mason, the sportsbook brand manager for BetOnline.ag, saw a similar slip from the Buckeyes’ quarterback. Fields had been their odds-on favorite as recently as early November before falling behind the other quarterbacks, also including Clemson star Trevor Lawrence.
“It's nothing against Justin Fields,” Mason said. “We all know he’s a stud. But he’s just not getting snaps, and I don’t think he'll have enough snaps by the end of the year.”
Both Jones and Trask have appeared in eight games, twice as many as Fields.
As the pandemic was long likely to cause disruption in schedules and lead to an imbalance in playing time for players this season, it’s possible that voters were going to be more flexible when reviewing the statistical disparities between contenders.
But limited games also elevate the significance of shaky performances such as Fields’ three-interception outing against Indiana last month. It was his sole matchup against a ranked team, and Ohio State won’t face another team in the top 25 until at least Dec. 19, the day of the Big Ten championship game and other divisional crossover games.
“If you're going to play fewer games, you have to be spectacular in that few amount of games that you do play,” said McCartney, who is a Heisman voter. “Unfortunately, he had that Indiana game. He had to be fantastic in that game, and it was the most mistakes he's made in any game as Ohio State’s starting quarterback.”
The reduced margin for error is a reminder of the difficulty in prevailing in a race with fewer appearances.
Notre Dame quarterback Angelo Bertelli remains the only Heisman winner to miss multiple games in a season. He took the award in 1943 after he had been called into service in World War II midway through the season, prompting him to miss four games.
But he had been impressive enough for the Fighting Irish through October that he remained at the top of most voters’ ballots. He won the award in a landslide over other contenders that included Northwestern quarterback Otto Graham, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.
McCartney reasons that Fields could have followed a similar script, as could have Lawrence, who missed two games after testing positive for the coronavirus.
The trick is, it requires near flawlessness.