Justin Fields glances over to the wall in the workout room at Ohio State’s training facility.
It’s a scoreboard, very hard to miss, with the Buckeye red colours and white font.
“29-23 Clemson” the mural reads.
On the surface, it represents the score of the 2019 Fiesta Bowl, where the Clemson Tigers defeated the Buckeyes to advance to the National Championship Game. For Fields, it’s a painful memory, as he threw the interception to Clemson’s Nolan Turner, sealing the game for the Tigers.
A lot can change in a year. pic.twitter.com/dZmaIsCTg8
— ESPN (@espn) January 2, 2021
In the bowels of the University of Phoenix Stadium, the loss planted a seed in the Buckeyes locker room. All the players who experienced defeat vowed to use this moment as motivation to get back and win the following year.
The scoreboard mural never left its place in the practice facility. Serving as a daily reminder of the hard work required to win a championship.
Rarely do teams in college football get a second chance to face a familiar foe, on the same stage, with the same stakes. But fate set Ohio State and Clemson on a collision course, meeting in the National Semifinal once again, this time in the Sugar Bowl.
The circumstances leading to this moment contrasted with last year. The in-game adversity Fields experienced unmatched any prior game. Yet the young quarterback never crumbled under pressure, putting together a masterpiece performance.
22-for-28, 385 yards, and six touchdowns. Fields led the Buckeyes to a dominant 49-28 victory over the Tigers, sending Ohio State to its first National Championship Game since 2015.
The year-long preparation for this moment paid off.
6 TOUCHDOWNS FOR JUSTIN FIELDS 🤯 pic.twitter.com/9WecXeo91H
— ESPN (@espn) January 2, 2021
“After last year, we wanted to come back and have an opportunity to play in the CFP and then go on to have a chance to win the national championship,” said Ohio State head coach Ryan Day. “In life, you don’t typically get an opportunity to get a second chance, but you can’t miss the second time. So, I don’t know what we’re more excited about, the fact that we have a chance to play for a national championship or the fact that we avenged that loss. But we’re going to enjoy it tonight, have a great champions meeting, and move on from there.”
Justin Fields sent shockwaves in college football when he transferred to Ohio State. The Georgia Bulldogs, Fields’ first school, elected to go with Jake Fromm as their quarterback.
Fields wanted a chance to win. Ohio State provided it. A program that consistently ranks near the top of recruiting, coupled with championship pedigree and successful alumni, Fields wasn’t going to let this opportunity slide.
When the Big Ten postponed its season due to COVID-19, Fields advocated for the sport to play in a safe environment. His voice reverberated across college football. Not only did Fields want a chance to play to increase his draft stock but he desired a second opportunity to win a championship. To return Ohio State to its place atop the college football landscape.
The Big Ten eventually started its season, albeit with fewer games and more rigid protocols compared to other conferences. Fields didn’t care. Even with limited fans in attendance, Fields took advantage of the unique circumstances every time he stepped onto the field.
The Buckeyes finished the season 6-0. But not without adversity. Many players tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in postponed games, and the Buckeyes playing several contests undermanned.
Fields remained the constant amidst the fickle change. Even after two nail-biting wins against Indiana and Northwestern, disappointing for Fields’ standards, the Georgia native remained steadfast in his belief in this team.
Leading up to the Sugar Bowl, a difference in Fields’ preparation and personality was evident.
“I prepared for this game as I’ve never prepared for a game before,” Fields said. “So, I think that showed on the field. Everybody doubting us just pushed us a little more.”
Late in the first half, Tigers linebacker James Skalski lay his helmet into the rib area of Fields, as the Buckeyes quarterback dove for the first down marker. He missed the first down and had trouble getting up, in considerable pain after that hit.
Skalski got a targeting penalty, ejecting him from the game. Fields remained under center for the Buckeyes, grimacing with every throw and rotation.
The 21-year-old admitted after the game that he was banged up. When Day asked him whether he was going to stay in the game, Fields responded with an emphatic yes.
“I don’t have a choice,” Fields said.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 2, 2021
On the same drive as the hit, Fields rolled out to his left out of the pocket before finding his tight end Jeremy Ruckert for a 12-yard touchdown pass. In the third quarter, with the Tigers attempting a comeback, Fields heaved the ball deep downfield, rotating his body in the process. Chris Olave, Fields’ favourite receiving target, completed the 56-yard pass, extending the Buckeyes lead.
Fields displayed his grit and heart, playing through the pain in his body. No challenge, no obstacle, no injury prevented the Buckeyes quarterback from leaving the game.
A job needed to be finished.
“My body is pretty beat up right now, but I’m happy,” Fields said. “My teammates are happy. And this is a feeling like no other. So I know my body is going to be hurting tomorrow morning, but it’s worth it for this win and my teammates. So I think that’s really what pushed me. I was just thinking all the things that we’ve sacrificed as a team, that’s really what got me through the whole game.”
Despite his stellar performance, Fields is quick to congratulate his teammates. From Trey Sermon’s 193 rushing yards to the defense holding Clemson to 44 yards on the ground, the Buckeyes showcased complete game domination.
“Justin [Fields] is an unbelievable player,” said Buckeyes defensive MVP Tuf Borland. “Each week with him at QB you have a good chance to win. I can’t say enough good things about him, and can’t say enough good things about the entire offense.”
Fields proved Friday that despite playing six games, the Buckeyes can beat the best of college football. The team isn’t satisfied, as the undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide looms in the coming days in South Florida, a national championship on the line.
Justin Fields is having a night 💪 pic.twitter.com/2XUhq6BVTr
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) January 2, 2021
The Buckeyes didn’t waste their second chance. The days preparing with last year’s score in the background wasn’t just an empty spectacle.
For Justin Fields, he is the focal point for a program defining victory. A budding future star, he understands how his win inspires young kids in Ohio and Ryan Day’s role in developing him as a player and person.
“He treats me like his own son,” Justin Fields said. “There could be no other coach I would like to play within the whole country. He’s everything you would want in a coach, everything you would want in a person. And to have him as our leader, it just makes me a better person, makes everybody on our team a better person,”
“But as far as being a role model to the kids in Ohio, it just shows that anything is possible. And, with God, I just put all my faith and trust in him. So I’m just grateful and I’m blessed.”
It’s not bad wanting to be like Justin Fields, who is now on the precipice of championship glory.