Ohio State’s offense started in a sputter against Michigan State.
The Buckeyes were locked in a 3-0 contest against the Spartans, with 16 yards on offense in the first quarter. That was until sophomore quarterback Justin Fields ran right to suck in three Michigan State defenders, then flicked a ball over their heads to senior wide receiver Binjimen Victor for a 60-yard touchdown. Ohio State captured a 34-10 victory.
Fields’ running threat has opened doors for Ohio State’s offense in 2019, but with a Big Ten title game against Wisconsin looming, a window has cracked for questions about the Georgia native’s mobility as he continues to cope with an MCL sprain suffered against Penn State.
“It hurts right now, but I’m gonna try to get in the training room as much as possible,” Fields said.
Fields holds 470 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground this season, despite surpassing 13 attempts just once.
Such a statline from the quarterback position is a major reason why Ohio State is No. 4 nationally in rushing yards per game. With Fields’ athleticism requiring the watchful eyes of linebackers responsible for cutback lanes, junior running back J.K. Dobbins has amassed 1,657 rushing yards in 2019.
Fields said he’s worked with Ohio State’s training staff this week to keep his legs in contention, even if his knee brace provides restrictions.
“It definitely limits you from running,” Fields said. “At the end of the day, you have to stay safe when you’re behind the pocket.”
Keeping that threat in play gives Wisconsin’s No. 7 rush defense another element of Ohio State’s rushing attack to account for.
Allowing Fields to keep the ball on a read or designed run isn’t the only way Ohio State has played versatile football on the ground during this campaign. The Buckeyes have mixed a number of under center looks and zone schemes to keep defenses at bay.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said such concepts become paramount against a defense like Wisconsin’s.
“It’s very hard to find an inch on them,” Day said. “You’ve gotta be creative, you’ve gotta change things up. You’ve gotta change up formations. You’ve gotta change up schemes. You’ve gotta do a lot of different things to put them in stress, to move the ball.”
Fields’ injuries could hinder that versatility.
Following the Michigan game, Fields said he sprained the MCL in his left knee against Penn State the week prior. He reaggravated the injury in the rivalry game, crumpling to the ground and staying there for a few minutes after taking a hit during a passing play.
While Fields returned to throw a 30-yard touchdown strike to freshman wide receiver Garrett Wilson following a scramble, he required a bulkier “lineman” knee brace to continue playing.
“He has a tremendous approach. He’s humble,” Day said. “But deep inside there’s a fiery, competitive dude in there who just tries to take your heart out when he’s at the game.”
Day said that while Fields’ health is of obvious concern, it won’t limit Ohio State’s gameplan to a great extent. The New Hampshire native pointed out that Fields has gotten hurt almost exclusively on pass plays.
“There’s only so much we can do. The one in the Penn State game, rolling out to his left on the fourth down, the other one he got hit in the pocket as well,” Day said. “You just do the best you can, you try to run the plays you think are going to be the most successful, you go from there.”
In the previous meeting between the two schools, Ohio State picked up 268 yards on the ground against the then-No. 1 rush defense.
The Buckeyes will know the full extent of Fields’ limitations, and how it impacts their rushing efficiency, Saturday at 8 p.m.