Heisman hopes have slipped away, but Justin Fields unconcerned as bigger goals await

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
With 15 touchdown passes and three interceptions this season, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is expected to be named as the Big Ten's offensive player of the year Tuesday.

Heisman Trophy voting began Monday. A few months ago, Justin Fields was a leading contender for that award, given to the most outstanding player in college football.

It’s now clear that Fields won’t win it, a victim of a five-game regular season and a three-interception performance against Indiana in the biggest of those games.

More: Ohio State coach Ryan Day hopes Justin Fields will be voted as Heisman Trophy finalist

On Sunday, Fields downplayed the suggestion he’s disappointed to have the Heisman slip away. He said he’s more concerned with team goals, starting with the Big Ten championship on Saturday against Northwestern and then the College Football Playoff.

“I tend to focus on things that I can control,” Fields said. “The number of games or whatever comes into effect in winning that award, I can't control that. But what I can control is going out there and playing my hardest for my teammates and my brothers to try to put together a good game. I'm not really worried about (the Heisman). I'm just worried about winning games.”

Except for the Indiana hiccup — despite the interceptions he threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another — Fields has been nearly flawless.

“I think he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.

Fields’ gifts are easy to see. The strong, accurate arm. The speed and athletic ability when he needs to run. But Day and Fields’ teammates have raved this year about his selflessness and leadership.

He bided his time in asserting himself last year. Fields understood he had to earn respect in his first year on campus after transferring from Georgia. This year, the junior is clearly the leader, especially on offense.

That’s been essential more off the field than on it. The Buckeyes have dealt with much adversity because of the pandemic, the latest being the cancellation of the Michigan game last weekend.

“These past few months, we've been through so much together that these things don't faze us anymore,” Fields said. “You can throw anything at us. We're ready for it. We're going to handle it. We're just going to lean on each other for support. A lot of things haven't gone our way, but now those things have just made us stronger.”

A few years ago, it was plausible that Fields would be lining up against Ohio State on Saturday in a purple uniform. Northwestern was one of the first major schools to offer him a scholarship. Fields and Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald hit it off.

“I was really actually close to going to that school,” Fields said. “At the time, I wasn't that big of a recruit.

“I love coach Fitzgerald. He's a great person, a great coach, and I just love the way he runs this program. I think they have a great culture over there and do things the right way.”

Northwestern doesn’t often get elite prospects, and Fitzgerald knew Fields had the talent to become a program-changing player.

“We thought we’d take a hard swing, and we thought we built a great relationship,” Fitzgerald said Sunday. “Then everybody else watched the same tape we did, and then we kind of got back to the back of the line. He's a great young man and (comes from) a great family, and I’m just so impressed by watching him play.

“He’s just continued to raise his game to levels that are just unbelievable. I'm a huge fan in every game but when we play.”

On Tuesday, the Big Ten begins announcing its all-conference selections. Fields is the favorite to repeat as the offensive player of the year. He has completed 78.1% of his passes for 15 touchdowns and only the three interceptions in the Indiana game.

Fields’ focus is not on awards but improvement. Crushed as they were not to play Michigan, the Buckeyes are taking the lemonade approach. That cancellation gave them an early start on Northwestern as they begin pursuit of their postseason goals.

“We’ve just got to keep moving forward, keep getting better,” Fields said. “I think we have the best talent in the country. So us practicing against each other each and every day, that's not going to do anything but continue to make us better.

“Of course, everybody was bummed we weren't playing the team up north. But we can't control that. We’ve got to move on. We have bigger things to accomplish and more goals to accomplish.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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