December 30, 2020

Ohio State's Justin Fields Needs a Transcendent Performance to Beat Clemson

It’s always nice to get together with old friends.

At this point, that might be the way to describe the Clemson Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes, who are set to meet in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff for the third time in the last five years.

The Tigers have won the first two meetings, a 31-0 shellacking in 2016 on their way to winning the national championship and a 29-23 squeaker last year in the Fiesta Bowl. Clemson is once again favored to knock off the Buckeyes in a battle of unbeaten teams. If Ohio State is going to finally get the best of Clemson and reach the title game, they are going to need Justin Fields to carry them.

In fact, Fields will need to have the game of his life if the Buckeyes are going to beat Clemson.

Their Last Meeting

When Clemson and Ohio State met a year ago, Fields played well but it wasn't good enough for the Buckeyes to win. Ohio State scored just two touchdowns in the game, including one on a 68-yard touchdown run by J.K. Dobbins.

Fields and the Ohio State offense orchestrated three other long drives in the first half but all ended in a field goal. Fields and the Buckeyes failed to finish drives that could have given Ohio State a far more commanding lead than 16-0. When all was said and done, Fields racked up 320 passing yards but only one passing touchdown. More importantly, he threw two interceptions, including one late in the game that sealed Clemson’s victory.

Needless to say, Fields needs to be better than he played against Clemson last season. He and the Buckeyes had ample opportunities to put the Tigers away early in the game but failed to capitalize. All three Ohio State field goals in the first half were from 33 yards or closer, so the Buckeyes were getting into the red zone but unable to reach the end zone. Regardless of everything that happened in the second half, that was the difference in the game.

Fields must be decisive and on point with his passes once Ohio State reaches the red zone. Settling for long field goals is one thing, but if Fields can’t help the Buckeyes turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns, Ohio State will have a difficult time beating Clemson.

The Supporting Cast

In fairness, Fields is solely to blame for Ohio State’s missed opportunities in last year’s game. However, the supporting cast around Fields on the OSU offense isn’t as strong as it was a year ago.

For starters, Dobbins is gone, which has hampered the Ohio State rushing attack for most of the season. It’s only in the last two games that Oklahoma grad transfer Trey Sermon has come alive. In fact, he saved the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern when Fields and the passing game struggled. But it’s far from a certainty that Sermon can replicate that kind of performance against Clemson and give the Buckeyes a more balanced attack offensively.

Meanwhile, Ohio State’s receiving corps is somewhat depleted from last year. A year ago, the Buckeyes had five capable wide receivers, but they are now down to the duo of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. No other OSU receiver has more than 78 receiving yards in seven games this season. Fields has been consistently targeting Olave and Wilson in the passing game, which will make it easier for the Clemson defense to focus its attention on those two receivers. Fields will have to be careful about the Tigers jumping routes to those two players.

If he’s going to be at his best, Fields must be willing to spread the ball around to players other than Olave and Williams. 

Go Big or Go Home

Not only is the supporting cast around Fields a little diminished from last season, but the Ohio State defense is also not on the same level as it was a year ago.

Ohio State allowed at least 25 points in three of six games this season. That happened only once in 13 games in 2019 before the Tigers scored 29 points against the Buckeyes in the CFP. After losing three first-round picks from last year’s defense, including two of the top three overall selections, Ohio State lacks the high-end talent and game-changers on defense who helped keep the Clemson offense in check for long stretches in last year’s game.

This time around, the Tigers still have Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and Travis Etienne at running back. After a sluggish season, Etienne started to get back on track in the ACC Championship Game while Lawrence has been efficient since his return from COVID-19. The Buckeyes were fortunate to allow only 29 points against Clemson last season and they will be fortunate to keep the Tigers under 30 points again.

That means Ohio State’s path to a win is in a shootout rather than a defensive struggle, placing the burden on Fields to help the Buckeyes score early and often.

Is Fields Up for the Challenge?

On the surface, it’d be easy to doubt whether Fields can play the game of his life against Clemson. The abbreviated schedule aside, this has not been the 2020 season that Fields envisioned. He’s already thrown more interceptions this year than he did in all of 2019, and in half the games.

In the Big Ten Championship Game against a quality Northwestern defense, Fields played perhaps the worst game of his career, completing just 44% of his passes while throwing two interceptions. In a game against Indiana, which was Ohio State’s toughest game of the season, Fields threw three picks and was sacked five times despite making enough plays to lead the Buckeyes to a win. However, based on that recent history, Fields isn’t trending in the right direction to be at his best against a team like Clemson.

On the other hand, Fields will undoubtedly be the best athlete on the field during the national semifinal. He has the arm strength and the running ability to give any defense a hard time. If Fields can play his best game, he can be the difference in leading Ohio State to a win.

The problem is that the Ohio State defense and the offensive playmakers around Fields aren’t at the same level as they were a year ago. The Buckeyes aren’t as talented as Clemson, which means if Fields doesn’t have a transcendent performance and play the game of his life, Ohio State’s path to victory will be narrow.

Photo: Getty Images