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Justin Fields' heroic effort lifts Ohio State to showdown with Alabama

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If the largely uncompetitive College Football Playoff semifinal games on Friday could be distilled to two distinct moments, they’d be easy to select.

No. 1 Alabama’s systemic dispatching of No. 4 Notre Dame will long be remembered for tailback Najee Harris leaping over Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud, an athletic marvel that could well be the frozen moment which this Alabama season is remembered.

In No. 3 Ohio State’s 49-28 blowout of No. 2 Clemson later on Friday, the indelible image will be of the helmet of Clemson linebacker James Skalski crunching into the midsection of Justin Fields. The hit got Skalski tossed from the game for targeting, and set the narrative for Fields gutting through one of the greatest performances in Ohio State history.

Fields made sure Ohio State got the ending right in the 2020 playoff semifinal, completing 22-of-28 passes for 385 yards and a Sugar Bowl-record six touchdowns. That included mesmerizing touchdown passes of 56 and 45 yards, deft parabolas that would equally impress geometry teachers and NFL scouts. The pain was both felt and inflicted. “My ribs were killing me pretty much all game,” Fields said.

While his ribs ached, he still managed to chop up Clemson like brisket.

After Fields’ interception in the end zone ended the Clemson game in 2019, Fields flipped the script. And along the way, he delivered such a command performance that it presents an enticing clash of the night’s images – Alabama’s dominance colliding with a suddenly soaring Ohio State.

How dominant was Fields on Friday? Well, he made Clemson look like Nebraska in orange, as Ohio State finished with 639 yards. Of the most immediate importance, the performance was potent enough to cast some skepticism on the aura of inevitability of Alabama winning the national title that’s hung around all season.

Ohio State's Justin Fields reacts after a hit against Clemson in the first half of the College Football Playoff semifinal game on Jan. 1. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Ohio State's Justin Fields reacts after a hit against Clemson in the first half of the College Football Playoff semifinal game on Jan. 1. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Fields, a true junior quarterback, delivered the rare echelon of performance where it allowed you to visualize him entering the elite company of quarterbacks who’ve been able to topple Nick Saban. The case for Ohio State toppling Alabama begins and ends with Fields — it could help if he could play safety, but we’ll save the X’s and O’s breakdowns of that for the next 10 days.

Those who’ve topped Saban over the years include virtuoso performances that are stored with some of the sport’s most vintage outings of the last generation — Johnny Manziel in 2012, Trevor Lawrence in the 2018 College Football Playoff and Joe Burrow last season. Sure, there’s been a Nick Marshall along the way who has needed a Kick 6 to get home. But it has taken elite QBs playing their best football to topple Alabama, and Fields is suddenly doing that after an uneven and unsatisfying 2020 so far.

The college football trend in recent seasons is that the most dominant programs need dynamic downfield passing threats — and the accompanying elite downfield receiving threats — that can rattle Alabama. And there was Ohio State star wideout Garrett Wilson in the first quarter, streaking down the left sideline and contorting his body in the air for a 47-yard gain. In the third quarter, Fields threw a 56-yard dart to Chris Olave, his favorite target who’d missed the Big Ten title game and returned to catch six passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns.

While Wilson and Olave aren’t quite as dynamic as Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, they’re the next best in the sport’s rare air.

By the time Fields connected on his final heave — a ratings-killing 45-yarder to Jameson Williams early in the fourth quarter that sent the East Coast to bed — it was obvious this performance would be remembered for decades in Columbus. Ponder back to the dominance of Troy Smith, the dramatic flair of Cardale Jones and the opportunism of J.T. Barrett and it’s hard to conjure up a better singular night against this caliber of an opponent.

Throw in the hit and the limp, and it’s the stuff of fable. “What really kept me going was my brothers and my love for them,” Fields said.

Justin Fields and Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes react after defeating Clemson, 49-28, in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Justin Fields and Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes react after defeating Clemson, 49-28, in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The game unfolded as if Ohio State was given the opportunity to wrong all its mistakes from last year’s game, a release for the pent-up frustrations of red-zone foibles, key penalties and buzzard-luck reviews.

(And, likely, there was some built-up animosity from having to change the way they play on offense because of Clemson’s sign-stealing operation.)

And by the end, the tenor of the performance inserted more potential drama into the title game than many expected. Seven years ago on the same field, Ezekiel Elliott’s run through Alabama in the Sugar Bowl changed the whole perception of the Big Ten. Ohio State went on to win the first College Football Playoff title after that game, and this marks the program’s return to prominence after putting up a dud against Clemson in 2016 and a night of lost opportunity after 2019.

Fields certainly didn’t author a one-man show. Trey Sermon proved a steady wingman, as he rushed for 193 yards. Ohio State dominated both lines, which was especially impressive considering they were missing one key starting offensive lineman (Harry Miller) and two key defensive linemen (Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday).

Ohio State’s defense flustered Trevor Lawrence enough, as he finished 33-for-48 for 400 yards and threw an interception. Lawrence’s numbers were inflated because he was chasing from behind all night, as the prime indicator of Ohio State’s defensive dominance was holding Clemson to two yards per rush, 44 yards on 22 carries.

But the story on the night was Fields, limping his way into Ohio State lore. Everything clicked for Ohio State, as Fields delivered a night that, most importantly, allowed these Buckeyes to dream even bigger.

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