Ohio State’s Justin Fields faces make-or-break game in Heisman candidacy vs. Indiana

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) throws during the first quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) throws during the first quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports /

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields has to dominate No. 9 Hoosiers if he’s going to overcome stats that dwarfed by other top contenders

While Kyle Trask was busy laying claim to the lead in this Heisman Trophy race with another barrage of touchdowns, his biggest rivals were as helpless as those SEC defenses that have tried to slow down the Florida quarterback.

Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence were all resigned to the role of spectator, with only Clemson’s planned, as COVID-19 hit college football hard, keeping Alabama and Ohio State sidelined. Jones may well still get a crack at LSU after last weekend’s postponement as the SEC looks to move games to keep that rivalry game on the schedule, but Fields is faced with the constraints that the inflexibility the Big Ten slate has created.

He was already playing the fewest games of any contender on the board, and now the Buckeyes quarterback’s Heisman Trophy chances – just like his team’s conference championship and College Football Playoff dreams — are now all but riding on Saturday’s game against No. 9 Indiana.

This isn’t just a matter of the handcuffs the Big Ten slapped on itself with a slate that didn’t allow for any leeway to make up games, though that isn’t helping matters. The conference created zero opportunity for Ohio State to make up its matchup with Maryland, which had to cancel after an elevated number of cases within its program.

The rest of the Buckeyes’ schedule is just flat-out bad. Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State are all just 1-3, with the Wolverines proving one of the biggest disappointments of the season as they went from preseason No. 16 to three straight losses. Add in Penn State going from No. 7 before Week 1 to 0-4 for the first time since 2001 and Ohio State hasn’t been helped by the Big Ten’s stalwarts.

Justin Fields needs to make his Heisman statement vs. Indiana

Enter Indiana, whose rise has created what could be the last top-10 matchup before championship weekend, and a golden opportunity for Fields to make a statement.

Now, there’s the potential that if Ohio State gets past the Hoosiers and runs the table, it could get a fellow unbeaten out of the Big Ten West in either No. 10 Wisconsin or 19th-ranked Northwestern in the conference championship game, or that if the Hoosiers take down the Buckeyes its Dec. 5 clash with the Badgers would be a meeting of top-10 teams. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The here and now is that if Fields is going to win the Heisman, he can’t just get Ohio State past Indiana to remain undefeated. He has to completely dominate.

While Fields’ statistics are impressive even in a truncated schedule as he’s hit on 86.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 11 touchdowns — a figure equal to the number of interceptions he’s thrown — his numbers were always going to be dwarfed by the rest of the Heisman challengers. That’s only elevated with the Buckeyes now limited to a maximum of seven regular-season games.

With 908 yards and 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions through three games, Fields is not going to come close to Trask, who has been eerily Joe Burrow-like in throwing for 2,171 yards and 28 scores to three picks in six games (Burrow was at 2,157 yards, 25 touchdowns at three interceptions at the same point of 2019). He’s not equaling Jones and his 2,196 yards and 16 scores and it’s unlikely he catches Lawrence, who is at 1,833 yards and 17 touchdowns in six games after sitting twice with a positive coronavirus test.

He currently finds himself third in the race per Vegas, with BetOnline moving Trask up to first after weekend’s six-touchdown performance at +175, with Jones following at +200, Field at +275 and Lawrence at +325.

Chalk it up to being caught up in Trask’s gaudy stats while others sat, but it’s crystal clear that in this race the number of games played is just as important as the level of play in them. Lawrence was already discounted for his absences, and while Fields and Jones being sidelined was by no fault of their own, they’ve paid in the latest odds.

It’s not ideal as Fields opened the season as co-favorites with Lawrence at +400 and remained the favorite as of last week (per Bovada), but despite being third on that board, not much has changed for Fields. His case was always going to hinge on two things given the length of the Big Ten schedule and the overall strength of the Buckeyes schedule: running roughshod over the rest of the conference (in how many ever games were played) and owning the moments that mattered.

There was never a margin of error on either end of that Heisman equation, unlike Trask, who was able to overcome an Oct. 10 loss to Texas A&M and move to the forefront of the race with 16 touchdowns in the three games since that defeat, that’s not a luxury Fields has. Not at this point in the season and knowing that falling to the Hoosiers means the Buckeyes would need them to lose twice to reclaim the top spot in the Big Ten East.

Ohio State has had its way with Indiana for 22 years, going 25-0-1 since last falling to the Hoosiers in 1988 and winning by an average of 30.7 points the past three seasons. This isn’t the same Indiana team that dropped five games last season, including all four against Top-25 teams and gave up an average of 41 points against those ranked opponents. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (1,070 yards and 11 total touchdowns) has been spectacular, and the defense is 19th in FBS, allowing 320.8 yards per game.

A year ago, the Buckeyes rolled 51-10 in Bloomington and Field was 14 of 24 passing for 199 yards and three touchdowns, while running for another score. This time he’s going to have to be better because the other top challengers have already come up big on traditionally bigger stages.

We’ve seen Jones and Trask carve up a top-five opponent as Jones got to then-No. 3 Georgia for 47 yards and four touchdowns and Trask outdid him against those same Bulldogs (then ranked fifth) as the Gators quarterback threw for 474 yards and four scores. His truncated schedule may have all but taken him out of the race, but Lawrence starred against then-No. 7 Miami to the tune of 292 yards through the air and three scores.

Now it’s Fields’ turn, with those performances the measuring sticks as the Buckeyes face their only top-10 opponent in the regular season, and potentially the only one they’ll see before resumes are picked apart with Fields in the Heisman race and his team in the playoff pecking order.

Indiana wasn’t the game anyone was circling on Ohio State’s schedule as the one that would likely determine the Big Ten East or make-or-break a Heisman candidacy. That, maybe more than anything with this bizarre college football season, is so 2020.

Best college football QB's of the 21st century. dark. Next

For more NCAA football news, analysis, opinion and unique coverage by FanSided, including Heisman Trophy and College Football Playoff rankings, be sure to bookmark these pages.