ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The throw was only one of 25 that Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields attempted on Saturday against Michigan. But considering the dramatic circumstances that surrounded it, the 30-yard strike from Fields may be the one that is remembered most.
After a third-quarter visit to the medical tent for what appeared to be a knee injury, Fields returned to the field and promptly delivered the third of his four touchdown passes as the top-ranked Buckeyes capped a 12-0 regular season with a 56-27 victory over No. 13 Michigan (9-3), their eighth straight win in the annual border battle for bragging rights.
Fields’s throw on his first play from scrimmage after leaving the game highlighted a performance that, in Ohio State Coach Ryan Day’s mind, cemented Fields as one of the country’s top performers.
The big stage certainly did not hurt matters for a quarterback facing Michigan for the first time after receiving immediate eligibility from the N.C.A.A. following a transfer from Georgia.
“I thought it was a magical moment. I thought it was a Heisman moment,” Day said.
The moments that preceded Fields’s ad-lib pass to Garrett Wilson in the back of the end zone were filled with angst as a season possibly leading the Buckeyes to their second national championship since 2014 appeared to be in jeopardy.
Fields had been masterful in engineering Ohio State’s high-powered offense before re-aggravating a sprained medial collateral ligament he sustained a week ago against Penn State. The Buckeyes held a 19-point lead when Ohio State tight end Luke Farrell inadvertently rolled up on Fields’s left knee. As Buckeyes fans braced for the worst, Fields’s teammates tried to remain positive.
But when Fields not only emerged from the medical tent and then made the throw to Wilson, his teammates once again witnessed the resilience Fields has showcased throughout Ohio State’s unblemished season.
“I feel like he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Ohio State defensive end Chase Young said. “You can definitely see his toughness.
“Once he walked out of that tent and everyone said he was cool, I knew he was going back in the game. That’s the kind of player he is.”
Fields has quietly gone about his business all season to keep the Buckeyes unbeaten while knocking over a number of roadblocks — including their ranked Big Ten rivals Penn State and Michigan in the past two weeks.
Like Day, Fields was successful in knocking off the Wolverines in his first appearance in the 116th edition of “The Game.” The Buckeyes dropped Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh to 0-5 in the storied rivalry.
Afterward, Fields insisted that he was never overly concerned with his injury or his ability to return to the rivalry game. He said he believed that the Buckeyes take the game more seriously than the Wolverines.
“Coach Day emphasizes toughness, and so I want to show him I was tough,” Fields said.
Fields had plenty of assistance as the Buckeyes’ star running back J.K. Dobbins ran for a career-high 211 yards and career-best four touchdowns. Yet it was Fields who remained mistake-free, methodically shrank the field and set up Dobbins for scoring runs of 5, 6, 5 and 33 yards.
Fields struggled early to find rhythm in his passing game and was off-target on his first three throws but connected on a 57-yard touchdown pass to receiver Chris Olave to give the Buckeyes breathing room at the end of the first quarter.
After a Michigan penalty on fourth down extended an Ohio State drive in the second quarter, Fields delivered a 47-yard strike to Wilson that set up Dobbins’ third touchdown, opened the floodgates and allowed the Buckeyes to pull ahead, 28-13. His 6-yard touchdown pass to K.J. Hill in the third quarter extended Ohio State’s lead to 19 points and silenced a capacity crowd, many of whom arrived hoping that Michigan’s four-game winning streak would culminate in an upset of the top-ranked Buckeyes.
Instead, Fields directed a victory that extended Ohio State’s period of dominance in “The Game”; Urban Meyer won all seven of his meetings with Michigan.
Now Fields and the Buckeyes can turn their attention to next weekend’s Big Ten title game in Indianapolis — the next step the Buckeyes must take in their quest for perfection after an emotional victory.
“The past years, we’ve always had one slip-up,” Fields said. “The main thing is just taking one game at a time and just focusing on the next team.”