Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence to meet again in College Football Playoff rematch
Their careers have long been intertwined.
Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence grew up in northern Georgia towns separated by 20 miles, and they developed into the top-ranked quarterback recruits in the same high school class.
They squared off on the field last December when Ohio State and Clemson met in the College Football Playoff.
The juniors will duel for a second time next week.
A rematch between the Buckeyes and Tigers in a playoff semifinal in the Sugar Bowl pits Fields opposite Lawrence.
But their paths leading into this season’s matchup have slightly diverged.
After missing two games when he tested positive for the coronavirus in late October, Lawrence finished the regular season on a tear and reemerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He delivered a signature performance in Clemson’s win over Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Speaking with reporters afterward, Lawrence said he thought he and his team were peaking at the right time.
“We’re playing our best football, and our best football is ahead still," he said. "You see a lot of teams start off really well, then kind of just fall off in a season. That's what we pride ourselves on. Starting well, playing well through the middle and finishing well."
Late in Ohio State's season, Fields has been up and down. In two of the Buckeyes’ final three games, he threw multiple interceptions. While Ohio State defeated Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, it was the worst statistical game of Fields’ college career. He completed fewer than 50% of his passes (12 of 27) and injured his right thumb.
If Fields is to help avenge last season’s playoff defeat or outperform Lawrence on New Year’s Day in New Orleans, he will first need to get healthy.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s win, he said he thought he had sprained the thumb and hoped to have enough time for it to recover over the 13 days between games.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day offered an optimistic, albeit brief, prognosis the following day.
“Justin will be fine,” he said.
The expected return of wide receiver Chris Olave for the playoff should also prove beneficial, putting one of Fields’ favorite passing targets back on the field.
Olave, who was one of 22 players unavailable for the conference title game, had led the team in receptions through the first five games. About a third of the passes thrown by Fields have targeted him.
Without Olave against the Wildcats, it was an adjustment.
“When you don't have one of your top receivers on the team, of course it's going to make my job harder,” Fields said.
He also credited Northwestern’s pass coverage for limiting the offense and causing pressure. Fields has been sacked 18 times this season, an average of three per game, more often than last season.
When Fields and Lawrence met previously in the playoff, both were critical in shaping the result.
Lawrence ran 67 yards for a touchdown just before halftime and then hit running back Travis Etienne for a go-ahead score in the final minutes to complete a 94-yard drive.
A pass from Fields intended for Olave was then intercepted in the final seconds, sealing the Buckeyes’ fate, a heartbreaking finish that lingered on their minds for 12 months.
Before facing off last December, Fields was asked if he viewed Lawrence as a rival. He said didn’t and that he respected his counterpart. But he appreciated the competition that has been spawned.
The playoff rematch won’t be the last of it.
This is expected to be the final season in college for both players, who are eligible to enter next year’s NFL draft.
Viewed as a well-rounded quarterback prospect, Lawrence is likely to be picked first overall.
“The physical traits, the processing speed, the intangibles, everything is there that you want in a prospect,” said Dane Brugler, a draft analyst for The Athletic.
But once again, Fields isn’t far behind. He might wind up as the second overall prospect on teams’ draft boards in the spring if he can outperform Zach Wilson, the Brigham Young quarterback who has seen his stock rise this fall.
Fields has long been on Lawrence’s heels. In a rematch in a week, before their professional careers begin, he can aim to outperform him on the field.
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Clemson
When: 8:45 p.m. Jan. 1
Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)