Outside the Pocket: 5/6 (plus 1 throwaway)
Under Pressure: 8/11 (1 TD, plus 1 throwaway)
Red Zone: 3/7 (1 TD)
3rd/4th Downs: 7/10 (4 conversions)
Forced Adjustments: 1
Explosive Plays (25+ yards and/or touchdown): 2
As soon as Ohio State was running the ball to close out a 35-17 first half despite having over a minute and a half on the clock, the game was over. The Buckeyes called three straight runs (four, if you include the holding penalty) and treated the drive as a means of getting to the locker room faster, not as a means to potentially close the scoring gap. HC Ryan Day was waving the white flag, just as many of us would want to if facing the juggernaut that is Alabama.
The admission of defeat in that moment was frustrating considering quarterback Justin Fields’ contributions to that point. It was not Fields’ best game by any stretch, but he was throwing well beyond 10 yards, managing the pocket well, and playing with the right balance of fearlessness and caution necessary to beat a defense such as Alabama’s. Fields’ passing ability was giving them a chance.
What’s perplexing about Fields’ performance is that the accuracy chart looks like the inverse of a typical passing performance. Shorter passes are, of course, easier for quarterbacks to hit, so most quarterbacks keep up the pace through about 10 yards, then start faltering beyond that. Fields against Alabama, on the other hand, could not find anything underneath, yet managed to fit in almost all of his throws beyond 10 yards, even if many of them were dropped.
Some of the struggles underneath were on Fields and no one but Fields. His first pass was knocked down at the line of scrimmage. A drive later, Fields simply whiffed on the first shallow crossing route he threw, which is mind-numbing considering how common the route is in Ohio State’s offense.
Some of Fields’ issues finding players underneath also had to do with how well Alabama was playing defense. In the red zone, for example, Fields was held to just three accurate passes on his seven attempts, in large part because Alabama had everything gloved up on most snaps. The Tide defense also did well to pressure Fields all game, which forced a couple of shallow incompletions despite Fields’ overall success vs the pressure.
Here is a good example of Alabama’s free rusher forcing Fields to speed things up. Ohio State declares the “slide” side of their protection to the right, which means the center, guard, and tackle to that side will “zone” that area in protection. Generally that makes passing off blitzes and stunts easier. This could be decided in Ohio State’s playbook by preferring to slide to the field, away from the back, to the passing strength, or what have you. The left guard and tackle “man” the other side. However, Alabama’s defensive tackle’s “twist,” which prompts the Buckeyes left guard to try and follow him to the other side on the twist, leaving a wide open lane for the blitzing backer.
Fields had two slightly better options on this play than what he did. One: he could have rushed the checkdown as soon as he saw the free rusher, even if he already knew the safety was rolling down. That’s not an ideal play on third-and-9, though. It could also be argued that Fields should move to the crosser from the #1 (outside) receiver from the trips side, but considering the sticky coverage there and the extra time it would take to reset and load for that throw vs the free rusher, it’s hard to argue for certain that Fields would have been better off. Alabama caught Ohio State with a good call and Fields wasn’t superhuman enough to overcome it. Happens.
Fields’ other blips this game were a result of him trying to wish wide receivers open when they clearly were not. Both in quick game and down the field, Fields has a tendency to lock onto his first guy. For quarterbacks who are often right with their first read, it’s not as damning a flaw, but it does still hurt in the event they are wrong or the coverage is executed at a high level. To be fair to Fields, this issue did not crop up near as often as it did versus Northwestern. It still got him a couple times, though.
That being said, Fields was more good than bad down the field. Beyond 10 yards, Fields was locked in and willing to test the Alabama defense. The Buckeyes did not find as many explosive plays as they were looking for, but there is no knocking Fields for not trying.
Alabama starts in two-high, which they did a fair amount all game. To the field side, Ohio State has a smash concept. The outside receiver runs a hitch, while the slot receiver runs a deep corner over the top. Fields’ read to that side of the field is the low cornerback whose job is to play the difference between the corner and the flat route. The field cornerback does a wonderful job with his technique, forcing Fields off that half of the field. Since Fields knows the defense is in two-high, though, he shows no hesitation in turning back side and ripping a bender down the seam to split the deep safeties with an athletic tight end matched up on a linebacker. Getting to the back side bender like that, with that kind of placement, is some NFL stuff.
Fields also had a few throws like this one where he drove the ball to the sideline. This back shoulder ball is about as pretty as it gets and arrives with enough velocity to not really allow the defensive back to turn and close once he realizes what is happening. Somehow, this was eventually ruled incomplete after review, but Fields delivered this ball about as well as he could have.
By far the most impressive part of Fields’ day was how he handled pressure, though. Fields was accurate on eight-of-11 attempts when pressured, with a well-used throwaway added on top. Despite having just suffered the rib injury against Clemson (and battling through it then), Fields was fearless against an Alabama front that was beating the gold coins out of him.
Fields did not take a huge hit on this throw, but he did have to do some pocket navigation to keep himself clean. As was the case for a lot of the night, Alabama got some good pressure onto Fields via blitz. The running back thankfully picked up the free rusher just in the nick of time, giving Fields the smidgen of space he needed to step up and fire into a tight window. This is great from Fields to not fold against the free rusher, trust the running back to pick it up, and slide into open grass for a tough throw.
Alabama sent another five-man pressure on Fields’ only touchdown pass of the day. While somewhat similar to the play where Fields is wishing his receiver open a few clips ago, Ohio State’s slot receiver does eventually work open in this instance. Fields showed the patience and fearlessness in the pocket to make the throw despite being caved in on.
In this instance, Fields knows he absolutely has to target the sticks at all costs. The Buckeyes are down multiple scores and it’s 3rd-and-13 from their own red zone. A failed conversion here cuts Ohio State’s slim chances of a comeback all the way down to 0%. With Alabama in two-high before the snap, Fields opens with a peek at the strong safety, who rolls down while the weak safety rolls to the middle of the field. Fields knows he should have 1-on-1 on the boundary now, which prompts him to let it rip to his receiver running the stop route. Fields is undeterred by the pass-rusher breaking through to crush him and still gets the ball off perfectly.
Ultimately, his efforts on that play did not end up mattering. The Buckeyes converted, but the drive stalled out later, cementing their fate against one of the best college football teams of all time.
It was unfair from the start to expect any quarterback or offense to keep up with Alabama in a shootout. The Crimson Tide has consumed everything in their path this season. They have taken plenty of other elite offenses down in shootouts, such as the Florida Gators in the SEC championship. Ohio State keeping up in this one was always a long shot, especially considering how mediocre their defense had been to this point.
And yet, Fields did his part for at least the first 40 minutes of the game, if not all of it. The Ohio State offense regularly stalled out towards the end as a result of some penalties, drops, and miscommunications, but Fields’ fearlessness was present until the final whistle. Fields put forth that effort and fearlessness while clearly nursing a rib injury against a defense that was relentlessly getting pressure on him, too.
The National Championship was far from Fields’ best game, but it’s still a performance to be content with and not one that should have people too worried about his future.