After off game against Northwestern, Justin Fields motivated against Clemson

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is determined to bounce back from the worst performance of his college career.

When Ohio State plays Clemson on Friday in the College Football Playoff, no player might have more at stake than Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields.

If he plays well and Ohio State wins, his legacy will be enhanced and his NFL draft stock solidified.

If he plays the way he did in the Big Ten championship game and Ohio State loses, Fields will face more doubters than he ever has.

Ohio State football: Justin Fields says of thumb: 'I'll be good by Friday night'

No one doubts Fields’ talent or work ethic. Buckeyes coaches and teammates have heaped praise on the leadership he has shown this year, first in pushing the Big Ten to reinstate football and then in guiding Ohio State to an undefeated record.

But in the two biggest games of the season, Fields has been shaky. Against Indiana, his 300 passing yards were offset by three interceptions.

Against Northwestern, Fields completed only 12 of 27 passes for 114 yards with two interceptions. Playing without wide receiver Chris Olave, who missed the game because of COVID-19 but is expected back this week, Fields often looked hesitant in the pocket. For the first time in his Buckeyes career, he did not throw a touchdown pass.

Fields said Monday he is using that as motivation.

“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I think what happened in those games and me not playing as well as I wanted to is maybe God was sending me a message that I need to do more and work harder.

“So that's kind of how I'm looking at it. I'm looking at it as a challenge. For this game, I've been preparing my butt off. I haven't prepared like this the whole season.”

Fields will need to be at his best. It’s highly unlikely the Buckeyes will shut down a Clemson offense featuring quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, so the Ohio State offense will have to click.

More: Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence to meet again in College Football Playoff rematch

Fields hurt his right (throwing) thumb with 13 minutes left against Northwestern. He described it after the game as a sprain. He and coach Ryan Day gave similar, short answers about the thumb on Monday.

“I'll be good by Friday night,” Fields said.

“I think he'll be fine,” Day said.

Receiver Garrett Wilson was more expansive.

“He’s looked good throwing the ball all week,” he said.

Fields played well in last year’s CFP semifinal against Clemson, completing 30 of 46 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown. But he threw two interceptions, including the game-clincher after Olave broke off his route.

“I think he left that field wanting another shot and now he has another shot,” Day said. “He's not the only guy that has felt that way. There's a lot of other guys on our team that felt that way. You would have never thought you were going to make it all the way back here to go play in this game, and the journey was so strange to get here, but here we are.”

Fields said it was self-explanatory how much it means to get a rematch.

“That game hurt a lot last year,” he said. “That's kind of been our whole motivation this whole offseason, just getting a chance to play those guys again and get this opportunity.

“Of course, Clemson is a great team. They have a great coaching staff, great players. So we're just excited to be on the stage with them and just get another chance to play those guys.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney reciprocated the praise.

“He's a great football player,” Swinney said. “He's going to be a top‑two (NFL draft) pick, top‑three pick. I can't imagine he wouldn't be.

“He can do it all. It's another year in the system. He's just a dangerous guy. He's got great confidence. He understands it. He creates a lot of conflict because of his ability to run the ball.”

Fields knows how much is riding on this game and how crucial it is that he plays well.

“I think it's very important,” he said. “It's the playoffs. Every team in the country wants to be in a spot we're in right now. We just have to take advantage of this opportunity that we have and make the most out of it.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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Justin Fields has gotten high marks for his leadership this season.

No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Clemson

When: 8:45 p.m. Friday 

TV: ESPN

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)