Justin Fields had a monster debut for Ohio State, and that could spell trouble for the SEC
By 12:32 ET on Saturday, Justin Fields had booked a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Ohio State, in Ryan Day’s first game as head coach, pushed itself into Clemson/Alabama territory as a College Football Playoff lock. And the rest of the Big Ten, thinking that this was the year that the Buckeyes may be a tiny bit vulnerable with a first-year head coach and a transfer quarterback, sunk in their seats. Sigh, another year where everyone is chasing Ohio State.
Then Fields and the Buckeyes came back to Earth.
But all things considered, it was an impressive debut for Fields, who was the No. 2-rated recruit in the Class of 2018 behind only Trevor Lawrence. He lit up Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic early on, accounting for five touchdowns — four of which came in the opening nine minutes. Fields, though, looked human for much of the rest of the game, as Ohio State went nearly two quarters without scoring.
This was the moment that Ohio State fans had waited for since Fields — the highest-rated recruit to ever play for Ohio State — announced he was leaving Georgia. He showed his complete package of skills early on, with that rocket arm and his breakaway speed. He ran for a 51-yard touchdown through a massive hole on the left side of the line, after which he admitted he couldn’t believe how easy that was. He must’ve been thinking the same thing on the next possession with a 25-yard TD pass to Jeremy Ruckert. And a few minutes later on the 32-yard TD to Binjimen Victor. And then to Chris Olave for a 29-yard score. Has there been a better 30 minutes of a first career start ever?
On the FOX broadcast, Gus Johnson didn’t even have time to get revved up, as he sounded almost subdued because it looked so easy.
What happened next is up for interpretation. Did Ohio State take its foot off the gas, or did Florida Atlantic outscoring the Buckeyes 21-17 the last 51 minutes mean something? Is Fields great at the home run play, but can he not string together first downs and sustain drives? The answer may be a little bit of both at this time.
Fields comes in highly regarded because of his tools, but he is not yet the precise passer that Dwayne Haskins was. Probably not even close at this point. Haskins could fit balls into windows; Fields may have a stronger arm, but he can’t quite pick apart a defense yet. So when Florida Atlantic dropped eight into coverage (and didn’t let receivers run free to the end zone), Fields wasn’t quite the same.
My favorite play from Fields was on third-and-15 midway through the second quarter. Fields moved out of the pocket, set his feet and delivered a strike to Olave for 17 yards over the middle and a first down. Those are the throws Fields has to make. It starts with willing to make them in the first place, and he was a little shy in this regard.
Let’s put this all in perspective, though. It was his first start, in front of 103,000 fans, with sky-high expectations (which comes with the territory when you have those five stars next to your name). It was his first time getting hit, and in a bit of a surprise, he took more than a few snaps under center. He held onto the ball a few times when he could’ve just thrown it away. He has to get better command of this offense, like changing protections and helping along his offensive line.
Justin Fields was as good as advertised today vs FAU 🔥 pic.twitter.com/du46HLR0qP
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) August 31, 2019
But when we look back on Fields’ performance, it could’ve gone much, much worse. Other quarterbacks with a ton of hype haven’t had near the success in their debuts that Fields enjoyed on Saturday (as Hunter Johnson can attest).
Let’s take a look at the first starts for every 5-star quarterback in the past 5 years, keeping in mind that opponent and location matter. Fields (18-of-25 passing for 234 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INT; 12 rushes for 61 yards, TD) stacks up very favorably to his peers:
- Bo Nix (Auburn vs. Oregon): 13-of-31 passing for 177 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs; 7 rushes for 42 yards
- Trevor Lawrence (Clemson vs. Syracuse): 10-of-15 passing for 93 yards, 0 TD; 4 rushes for -9 yards
- Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama vs. Louisville): 12-of-16 passing for 227 yards, 2 TDs; 5 rushes for 26 yards, TD
- Shea Patterson (Ole Miss at Texas A&M): 25-of-42 passing for 338 yards, 2 TDs, INT; 15 rushes for 64 yards
- Hunter Johnson (Northwestern at Stanford): 6-of-17 passing for 55 yards, 0 TD, 2 INTs; 11 rushes for 13 yards
- JT Daniels (USC vs. UNLV): 21-of-35 passing for 282 yards, TD; 5 rushes for -1 yards
- Davis Mills (Stanford): Has not started yet
- Jacob Eason (Georgia vs. Nicholls State): 11-of-20 passing for 204 yards, TD, INT; 1 rush for -2 yards
- Josh Rosen (UCLA vs. Virginia): 28-of-35 passing for 351 yards, 3 TDs
- Blake Barnett (Alabama vs. USC): 5-of-6 passing for 100 yards, TD; 4 rushes for -10 yards
- Kyler Murray (Oklahoma vs. Florida Atlantic): 9-of-11 passing for 209 yards, 2 TDs; 4 rushes for 23 yards
As you can see, Fields holds up well. Lawrence obviously went on to win a national title with Clemson, and Tagovailoa sparked Alabama to one off the bench. Is that the standard for Ohio State? No, but I’m sure many expect Fields to lead the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff since the only game they may not be favored in is at Michigan.
The big question, though, is where is all this going? Ryan Day has worked under Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer, but he seems intent on putting his own twist on the offense. Thus the pro-style looks with Fields under center and mostly two tight ends in the game. It worked too, most notably on the play-action pass to Olave for six and then near the goal line with the touchdown pass to Ruckert.
There’s plenty on film now for Day to deconstruct. By the time Fields steps onto the turf at Michigan Stadium after Thanksgiving, he’ll be a much more polished product, and — as he showed Saturday — the tools to lead Ohio State where it wants to go.