The knee injury suffered by Justin Fields in the closing moments against Penn State was one of the biggest turning points in the Buckeyes’ 2019 season.
OSU was just trying to run out the clock with a 31-20 lead when Fields went down. It was a 4th-and-5 play where a first down would have effectively let the Bucks kill the game. Fields rolled left, and landed awkwardly as he got hit from behind by Penn State’s Lamont Wade. He fell to the turf in pain, and while he returned to take the final snaps of the game, he was never quite the same.
Ryan Day refused to go into details about the injury or whether Fields had to undergo any kind of procedure, saying only “it wasn’t something that was catastrophic, but at the same time he wasn’t 100 percent.”
Day revealed that Fields “really didn’t practice much at all, wasn’t able to do much” during the week leading up to the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes’ slow start in that game may have cost them the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff, and a date with a deeply flawed Oklahoma team in the semifinals.
Still, Fields showed Day something very impressive that night in Indianapolis.
“Just the way he played in that game, especially in the second half, once he got his legs underneath him. It was very similar to J.T. Barrett a couple years ago. I think it’s very hard for a college quarterback to play at a high level without practicing,” Day said.
“I think if you’re Aaron Rodgers and you’ve been doing it for X number of years it’s okay. But the timing and everything it’s very hard. And the way he played says a lot about who he is as a competitor.”
Fields was somewhat physically limited in the Fiesta Bowl loss as well, but even in defeat, he was special.
“He played good against Clemson. He played good,” Day said. “He made some really good throws. Some throws we just missed. And he competed, and really proud of the way he came along this year.”
Now, as the Buckeyes turn their focus to the 2020 season, Fields is apparently leaving his knee issues in the past.
Wednesday, OSU assistant athletic director for football sports performance Mickey Marotti said Fields did not have any restrictions or limitations as the team went through offseason workouts.
“None. Zero,” Marotti said.
Fields return to health crosses one big concern off of Buckeye fans’ lists heading into the 2020 season. With the junior back at 100 percent, the big question now becomes just how good he can be.
Fields completed 67 percent of his throws for 3,273 yards, 41 touchdowns and just three interceptions in 2019. It was one of the greatest passing seasons in OSU football history, and unlike Bobby Hoying in 1995, Joe Germaine in 1998, Troy Smith in 2006, or Dwayne Haskins in 2018, Fields will be back for an encore.
That’s unusual for a player coming of the type of season Fields had. It’s also unusual for Day, who said he hasn’t gotten to work with a returning starter at quarterback for eight years.
Fields’ return also sets him up to be a leader inside the locker room, potentially answering another big question for the 2020 Buckeyes.
“He’s completely different than he was 365 days ago,” said Marotti.
That makes sense. Twelve months ago, Fields had only just arrived in Columbus. He arrived with a boatload of hype, but little on-field production in college. That meant Fields just put his head down and went to work.
“I think like last year when he showed up, he was quiet he was trying to fit in. He was trying to find the nutrition room. He was trying to find classes. He wasn’t sure about the workout, he didn’t know who his buddies were. It’s cold, everything. I mean, he didn’t know anybody,” Marotti said.
A year later, with 13 wins, a Big Ten title, and a College Football Playoff berth under his belt, Fields is ready to assume a much bigger leadership role.
“Now all of a sudden he’s the starting quarterback. He’s earned a reputation of being a hard worker. He knows he’s the leader now. He knows what needs to be done. He has a whole different mindset of the offense and where that needs to go. He knows that he has to do a great job with those young receivers,” Marotti said.
With his knee now in much better shape, now the focus shifts to just how much better Fields can get.
“I thought from game one all the way to the last game he really improved,” said Day. “So it’s exciting that we’re going to have him back.”