9/14 (2 INT)
19/27 (2 INT)
Outside the Pocket: 4/6 (INT)
Under Pressure: 3/5 (INT)
Red Zone: 5/6 (INT)
3rd/4th Down: 4/7 (3 conversions)
Forced Adjustments: 3
Explosive Plays (25+ yards and/or touchdown): 0
Six weeks ago, Ohio State’s Justin Fields was the clear QB2 for the 2021 draft class. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance was still a dark horse favorite for some and the hype train for BYU’s Zach Wilson was gaining steam, but for the most part, everyone had it: Trevor Lawrence, Fields, then everyone else. After last weekend’s game against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, that may no longer be the case.
Fields’ three-interception game against Indiana a few weeks ago felt like an anomaly. Through all of 2019, Fields threw just three picks (two to Clemson in the playoff). He had not thrown any in the three games leading up to the Indiana match. Fields then got through the following game against a middling Michigan State team without issue. It really seemed like that game was just a blip on the radar.
However, in facing a top-15 ranked Northwestern squad in the championship game last Saturday, Fields crumbled again.
Fields looked slow and indecisive as a passer, while providing precious few moments that proved his potential. At least in the Indiana game, Fields had a number of throws that showed his upside as an NFL passer. He was just volatile against the Hoosiers. In the Northwestern game, it was almost all bad. It’s not a mystery as to why Fields was only allowed to throw seven passes in the second half of a close game when you watch the broadcast back.
The indecisiveness was arguably the biggest issue on Saturday. Fields has always shown some moments of being a tick slow in his process, which we will get to, but he’s almost always done well to pull the trigger on the right target. On multiple occasions against Northwestern, Fields just refused to throw passes that, by all indication, were as open as those passing concepts were going to get.
Northwestern start in a two-high safety shell before the snap, but spin to a one-high shell with the boundary safety rolling down to play a hook zone. This should not be much more than a standard Cover 3 read as soon as Fields sees the field safety bail to the middle of the field. As Fields reaches the top of his three-step drop, he settles up before appearing to slightly move his arm to throw to the hitch on the outside. He absolutely should throw at the top of his drop right there against Cover 3. He knows it, too. The cornerback is bailing and the only other “threat” is the flat defender, who has to cover an outrageous amount of ground because he’s playing the field on college hash marks. Alas, Fields turns away for whatever reason, tries to work back side, and throws a mediocre ball that gets dropped.
One could argue that this play should end in a completion anyway. Fields delivered a good enough ball to his target. While that’s true, Fields did not pull the trigger on a fairly basic read / throw earlier in the down, so his process was flawed even if the result could, and should have, still been a completion. There is no reason for a perceived top-10 pick to shy away from this throw.
This non-throw is just as egregious. On this play, Ohio State are running their boundary tight end into the field on a shallow crosser. Whether “Mesh” or “Drive” or any other concept with a shallow, that shallow runner is allowed to “throttle down” near the edge of the far tackle box, if the defense is in zone coverage. That’s exactly what happens here. Northwestern’s flat defender to the field gets wide and vertical to help squeeze the outside receiver’s route a bit, which should signal to Fields right away that he can throw the shallow runner who is going to settle. It’s 1st-and-10 near the red zone, there is zero reason to not take the free yards.
It’s honestly tough to know why exactly Fields didn’t throw it. Perhaps he did not trust the shallow runner to settle down. Perhaps he just wanted to hold out for something more enticing. Either way, if you have ever seen Ohio State play football over the past decade, you know as well as I that they love running “Mesh” and other concepts that feature shallows. They rep this a ton; Fields should know how to execute it. For whatever reason, he just didn’t this time.
In some other instances against the Wildcats, Fields was a tick late getting to the throw he wanted and it cost him. This has always been somewhat true for Fields, but more often than not, he has other plays over the course of the game that make up for the small handful of late misfires. Since that was not the case on Saturday, Fields’ late throws looked even worse.
Deciding to throw six yards short of the sticks on third-and-11 feels like the problem, but seeing as Ohio State is in field goal range, it makes sense to just play for the easier field goal. The decision is not the problem. Instead, the problem is Fields needs to throw this ball right off the top of his drop. One step drop, settle, throw. That easy. The ball should be coming out as soon as the WR is turning, if not earlier. Fields takes an extra little hitch, though, and the ball does come out until well after the WR has broken off the route. Though the WR does get hands on it, the ball arrives so late that the DB is able to close the gap and deliver a hit to jar the ball loose for an incompletion. This would not have been an issue if the ball was out on time.
Ohio State nailed the field goal anyway, so Fields’ blunder did not really matter. The point is not what Fields lost on that specific play, though. It’s what he will lose on future plays by playing so late and waiting for routes to break all the way open. QBs need to throw with particular timing on certain routes, especially in the quick game, and Fields too often has lapses in that regard, even if he’s locked onto the right target.
As mentioned earlier, Fields was also uncharacteristically turnover-prone. In fairness to him, the interception he threw about eight yards down the field on a rollout to the right sideline may not have been his fault. Fields was late on the throw (again), but it seems there was a miscommunication between the wide receiver wanting to activate a scramble drill and move up the field versus Fields just wanting to throw the designed route. Still not a good play, but having that end in an interception was not entirely on Fields. The red zone interception, however, was completely avoidable.
Here is a very simple red zone rule to live by — if you’re throwing to the front of the end zone, you’re better off missing low; if you’re throwing to the back of the end zone, you’re better off missing high. This is just based on trying to throw away from the leverage defenders have to play with in the red zone. The idea is to try to lean towards an incompletion rather than an interception in the event of an errant throw. Fields failed to live by the rule on his red zone interception.
It’s clear this route is working towards the back right corner of the end zone. Sure, this is a bit of an awkward angle for the quarterback playing from the far hash, but Fields still should know where this ball needs to be. This ball needs to be somewhere near the pylon. If he misses over the wide receiver’s head, then so be it. No big deal.
Instead, Fields misses “low” while throwing to the back of the end zone, leaving the ball in prime position to be picked off. In Fields’ defense, this is also an outrageous interception effort by the DB and this probably does not end up as a pick that often if you run it back 10 more times. Fields can not be giving DBs chances like this for free, though. It’s bad quarterback process.
This one performance is probably not going to be enough to knock Fields out of the top-10. When it’s all said and done, he still might be QB2 ahead of Wilson and Lance. What this performance will do, however, is shine a brighter spotlight on some of Fields’ flaws and get people, myself included, to question what they saw in previous performances.
Fields also still has a chance (maybe two) to rebound from this. Ohio State will start with Clemson in the college football playoff. Granted, Fields’ worst game of 2019 was against Brent Venables’ Clemson defense, so maybe this will not be the redemption game people are looking for. That said, Fields must at least show something better than the Northwestern game and leave analysts with a not-so-bitter end to his college career.