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Justin Fields shakes off shot to ribs to push Ohio State past Clemson

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

NEW ORLEANS – The helmet of Clemson linebacker James Skalski crashed into the rib cage of Justin Fields and left Ohio State’s national championship ambitions in a moment of peril.

The impact of the brutal hit, ultimately flagged for targeting, caused Fields to tumble onto the Superdome turf, where he stayed for several minutes, writhing in pain, before retreating to the sideline.

It was only in the second quarter of a College Football Playoff semifinal bout with Clemson on Friday, and the Buckeyes maintained a touchdown advantage, but the lead appeared likely to shrink or disappear if their star quarterback was to miss any significant time.

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Freshman backup C.J. Stroud entered for one play, a handoff, before Fields returned and on the next play threw a dramatic touchdown to receiver Chris Olave for a 28-14 Buckeyes lead.

Coping with aching ribs and a sprained thumb, Fields gutted through the final 35 minutes for a record-setting performance in Ohio State’s 49-28 win over Clemson, helping to avenge last season’s postseason heartbreak at the hands of the Tigers and return the program to the national championship game for the first time since 2014.

“What a gutsy performance,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, “what a tough and special young man Justin Fields is.”

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields absorbs a crunching from Clemson linebacker James Skalski, a shot to the ribs in the second quarter that prompted Skalski's ejection from the Sugar Bowl for targeting.

Fields, who threw for a Sugar Bowl record six touchdowns against their postseason nemesis, was nearly as effective passing after injuring his ribs as in the earliest moments.

He completed 11 of 16 passes for 222 yards with four touchdowns and one interception following the hit by Skalski, after he had started 11 of 12 for 163 yards and a pair of TDs.

When he spoke with reporters after the semifinal, Fields said he never received an injury diagnosis from Ohio State’s team doctors, but that his right torso was “messed up.”

To play through the pain, he slid into a medical tent on the sideline following the second-quarter touchdown pass to Olave and was administered a couple of painkilling shots. He still winced at times. Throws traveling more than 10 yards hurt.

Day knew the burden. It was something the junior passer accepted as they spoke on the sideline in the aftermath of the shot to his ribs.

“He looks at me,” Day said, “ ‘You going to be able to make it?’ He said, ‘I don’t have a choice, I have to.’ ”

Fields carried resolve into the playoff rematch against Clemson. He sought redemption from the 2019 defeat, a loss in which he was picked off in the final seconds to end the potential game-winning drive. He also saw a chance to respond following the worst statistical game of his career in the Big Ten championship game two weeks ago. Facing Northwestern, he was intercepted twice, completed less than 50% of his passes and sprained his right thumb, which was wrapped in tape for Friday's semifinal.

He felt the setback “made me prepare more and prepare like I've never prepared before.”

“He learned a lot about himself as a quarterback this week,” Day said. “He got right back to work. He felt sorry for himself 24 hours. And the conversation we had was, you go out and play good in this game, and you win this game, nobody's gonna remember the Big Ten championship game. You're gonna remember this one. And they’re gonna remember it for a long time in the history of Ohio State football.”

Day drew a parallel to a performance from another chapter in Fields’ storied career in Columbus.

In a win at Michigan last season, Fields aggravated a sprained knee and left the game, before later returning and launching a touchdown pass to Garrett Wilson.

“So much of being a great quarterback is being tough,” Day said.

Pushing the Buckeyes through the semifinals and setting the stage for a national championship clash with Alabama, which features one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses and two Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith, Fields felt the payoff as much as he was in pain.

“My body is pretty beat up, but, I'm happy and my teammates are happy,” he said. “This is a feeling like no other. I know my body is going to be hurting tomorrow morning, but it's worth it for this win and for my teammates.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman