There is a ton of excitement about the top quarterback prospects in college football, and the buzz about these passers turned into a roar to ring in the new year on Friday.
Alabama and Ohio State were victorious in the College Football Playoff semifinal games, setting up a meeting between the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide in the Jan. 11 national championship game. There’s a lot to look forward to in that game, but I — and much of the football world — watched the highly anticipated matchup between Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence with particularly strong interest on Friday night.
Here are five takeaways from their showdown in the Sugar Bowl:
1) Fields had more at stake than any other player in this year’s College Football Playoff and saved his best performance for that stage, which is a big deal.
Friday night’s game was the best I’ve ever seen him play. In his previous three starts, Fields had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4:5 and took 11 sacks. He wasn’t decisive in those contests. It was the complete opposite story versus Clemson, though. He was urgent, trusted what he saw and let it rip. Fields had as many TD passes (6) as he had incompletions (6), finishing 22 of 28 for 385 yards with one INT and two sacks. It was a spectacular performance.
2) Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer once told me that he felt toughness was an underrated core trait at the quarterback position. Well, you’re not going to see a tougher performance than Fields’ showing against Clemson. The Buckeyes’ QB1 took a hard hit to the right side of his body from Tigers linebacker James Skalski, who was ejected for targeting on the play, but stayed in the game and went on to throw four of his six TD passes after the hit.
It’s one thing to keep playing after suffering an injury and hand the ball off or check down underneath. He fought through it and was playing aggressively.
There’s never been any question about whether Fields had the athletic tools teams covet. Tonight, he elevated himself by showing he has the toughness to succeed even when he’s far from 100 percent.
3) Fields will get an even bigger stage in 10 days against a better team with a much better secondary. He now has the same opportunity Deshaun Watson had (and seized) four years ago: A chance to beat a Nick Saban-coached defense as your potential final closing statement on your college career.
4) Lawrence is still a special player with a rare combination of size, athletic ability and arm talent. He was not at his best against Ohio State, but I don’t think it was the type of performance (33 of 48 for 400 yards with 2 TDs and an INT) that will jeopardize his standing with NFL evaluators. Keep in mind that there is no perfect prospect, and Friday marked just the second loss of his college career.
Lawrence came out hot. He won the foot race against Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning to the pylon on a zone read for the first score of the game, capping off an eight-play, 82-yard drive. Clemson couldn’t find much of a rhythm after that, though.
5) Lawrence got away with some poor throws and was under pressure a lot as the Tigers fell behind, fumbling three times in the second half (lost one). That’s something he’s going to have to clean up. He’s a little bit long with his delivery, and he’s not often under the type of heat he faced Friday night. But he’s going to see pressure at the next level because, chances are, he won’t be playing for a very good team as a rookie whenever he moves on to the NFL. He’s going to have to function more efficiently in that type of environment.
BONUS) I couldn’t end this post without a quick note on some non-quarterbacks who wowed us. You can make a case that Ohio State RB Trey Sermon (31 carries for 193 yards, TD) and WR Chris Olave (6 catches for 132 yards, 2 TDs) helped themselves as much as anybody on Friday. Alabama WR DeVonta Smith (7 catches for 130 yards, 3 TDs) and RB Najee Harris (15 carries for 125 yards) continued their ascent in a rout of Notre Dame, too.
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