Justin Fields had the Heisman numbers coming into Michigan, but he didn’t have a Heisman moment.
Despite a solid performance against Penn State — Ohio State’s highest caliber opponent to date — his most talked about play was a fourth down fumble in which he appeared injured, laying on the ground before eventually shuffling off the field under his own strength.
Deja vu struck in the third quarter against Michigan. This time though, with Fields writhing around in anguish clutching his left knee, it looked as though he had taken one hit too many.
Instead, the injury merely set the stage for a dramatic return, as Fields connected on a dazzling 30-yard touchdown in his first play back that served as a dagger into Wolverine hearts.
“I thought it was a magical moment. I thought it was a Heisman moment,” head coach Ryan Day said. “For him to go down, take that injury, puts the brace on, comes back out, and makes a throw that we didn’t design that way. There were some plays we designed that played out just the way we thought they would today. That was not one of them.”
Fields took a hit to his lower half from the Michigan pass rush while standing in the pocket, which caused his left knee to bend in awkwardly. He completed the pass for 15 of his 302 yards and a first down, but he remained on the turf in a scene that seemed to spell disaster for the Buckeyes’ hopes at a Big Ten Championship and national title run.
Instead of entering the tunnel at Michigan Stadium, though, Fields took to the medical tent while redshirt senior backup quarterback Chris Chugunov took charge of the offense in his absence.
But the absence was short lived, as just seven plays transpired before Fields emerged from the tent donning a heavier brace, testing the strength of his leg and heading toward the field in defiance of caution.
“Coach Day emphasizes toughness, so I wanted to show the team I was tough,” Fields said.
It was tough enough to return to the game on a sprained MCL, which Fields said he suffered on his final play against Penn State and reaggravated Saturday. Even tougher was what he did next, putting the ball in his own hands on the first play with a tweaked knee and a 35-16 lead.
Fields looked downfield, pump-faked, scrambled left out of the pocket, planted and delivered a strike to the end zone just before the line of scrimmage with a Michigan defender in his face.
The ball found its target, as freshman wide receiver Garrett Wilson tapped his toes in the back of the end zone before running out of real estate to hand the Buckeyes a comfortable 42-16 lead.
“For him to adlib, make a play and then make that throw going to his left, that’s about as good a throw as I’ve seen in a long time,” Day said.
There was speculation about whether or not Fields was injured entering the game, given the hit he suffered during the Penn State game. However, no details were given by Ohio State, and Fields was not made available for comment following the game or in the week leading up to Michigan.
Behind closed doors, Fields said there was prominent discussion about which brace he should wear on his sprained knee.
“I told the trainers I was going to try the smaller brace just to have more mobility. They told me if anything happened in the game they were going to bring the bigger brace out just in case, so that’s exactly what happened,” Fields said.
He said the larger metal brace makes him feel like an offensive lineman, though Fields remained nimble and shifty even with the heavier hardware slowing him down.
Fields racked up four touchdowns and averaged nearly 22 yards per completion, connecting on four throws of 28 or more yards.
His toss to Wilson wasn’t his final time finding the end zone, nor was he done taking hits. After an 11-0 scoring run by Michigan to make it a two-possession game, Fields hung in the pocket to hit senior wide receiver for a 16-yard touchdown that shut the door on the Wolverines. Fields took a shot on the throw, but this time he didn’t stay down.
“I feel like he’s the best quarterback in the country, and I just think he put on that show today,” junior defensive end Chase Young said. “You definitely see his toughness. I love Justin, and he’s definitely leading us right now.”
He may be leading the Buckeyes in Heisman contention, as well. Young didn’t record a sack against the Wolverines, and even after a career day from junior running back J.K. Dobbins, Fields’ gutsy performance is sure to garner attention.
His candidacy, though, along with the Buckeyes’ title hopes, may depend on how well Fields’ knee holds up in the weeks to come.