Ohio State freshman Julian Fleming fills in for Chris Olave in Big Ten title game
INDIANAPOLIS — The connection was off the first time.
As Julian Fleming found a patch of turf and awaited a pass from quarterback Justin Fields, it arrived slightly behind him and fell out of the grasp of his hands.
But two plays later on Ohio State's opening drive of the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, Fields turned again to the freshman wide receiver.
Standing near the sideline, Fleming was open for an 8-yard pickup and gave the Buckeyes a first down.
It was an expanded role for Fleming against Northwestern, making his first career start in place of wide receiver Chris Olave, who was one of the 22 Ohio State players listed as unavailable by the school before kickoff.
Fleming caught four passes for 53 yards in the Buckeyes’ 22-10 win over the Wildcats to clinch a fourth consecutive outright conference title and was relied on more than he had at any point previously this fall.
Over the Buckeyes’ first five games, Fleming had been targeted multiple times only once. Fields threw in his direction twice in a rout at Michigan State two weeks ago.
Fleming’s four receptions against Northwestern matched Garrett Wilson for a team-high.
During his post-game news conference, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day praised Fleming as one of a handful of players who had stepped up "in a big way" in the victory.
But the bright spots were otherwise difficult to find for a Buckeyes passing game that was missing Olave, who had accounted for about a third of the passes completed by Fields this fall and formed a duo with Wilson that was often difficult for secondaries to stop.
The connection between Fields and other more inexperienced receivers looked often out of sync as he threw two interceptions, the third multi-pick game in his career.
Some of the mistakes came as the result of facing one of the nation’s best pass defenses. Brandon Joseph, a freshman safety for the Wildcats who has led the nation in the interceptions, pulled off a skillful one-handed snag in the end zone late in the first half.
In other instances, the communication looked off. Fields tried to hit Jameson Williams near midfield on a drive early in the third quarter. Williams was near the sideline, but turned upfield as Fields released a pass and Northwestern’s Cameron Mitchell leapt forward to snag it and remain in bounds.
Fields finished 12 of 27 passing for 114 yards, the first time he had completed below 50% of his passes in his three seasons in college at Georgia and Ohio State.
He wore a brace on his right thumb throughout much of the second half and indicated on a postgame television interview that he may have suffered a sprain.