STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –– Justin Fields reminds Antonio Shelton of a few of the quarterbacks Penn State has faced this season. Michigan’s Shea Patterson and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett first come to mind.
Like Patterson and Pickett, Fields has been a big-play machine for Ohio State all season long. With still two regular season games, and at least one postseason game left to play, Fields has already produced the fifth-most touchdowns in a single season in Big Ten history with 41. He’s one behind future NFL Hall of Famer Drew Brees. Just a few more spots on the list are the two players Fields has followed in Columbus –– J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins.
“You come up with your list of things that you’re looking for in terms of characteristics, height, weight, speed, intelligence, release, accuracy, touchdown-to-interception ratio, win/loss percentage, all the things we look at when we’re evaluating and studying quarterbacks,” said Penn State coach James Franklin. “Watching him in games, watching him in practice, throwing live. He checked a lot of boxes.”
But what Fields also does is present a reminder of what could have been in Happy Valley. It was Fields –– the one-time Penn State commit –– and not Sean Clifford, who was thought of as the successor to Trace McSorley. However, as the hype around Fields intensified in the spring of 2017, he spurned the Nittany Lions for his home-state Georgia Bulldogs. However, only a year after he arrived on Georgia’s campus, he was already on his way out the door and headed for Columbus.
“The losses in recruiting are hard to shake. You put so much into them,” Franklin said Tuesday. “It's magnified when you lose someone, they go to somewhere else in the conference, and now you have to compete against that guy for three or four years.”
The time to sulk about losing Fields has been long over. It’s time to prepare for the challenges he poses the Penn State defense on Saturday.
Fields and the Ohio State offense have rolled through every one of their opponents on the way to a 10-0 start to the season. The Buckeyes have scored at least 34 points in every game this season an lead the nation in scoring offense, averaging over 51 points per game.
“They are explosive, as explosive as any offense in the country,” Franklin said.
The biggest thing the Nittany Lions can do to limit those big plays is put pressure on the quarterback. The Penn State defense currently ranks 11th in the nation in sacks, but the pass-rush has been almost non-existent in recent weeks. Since the defense’s 10-sack outburst against Purdue in early October, the Nittany Lions have racked up eight sacks total in their last five games.
“We’ve done a very good job early in the season, [but] we kinda fell off a little bit,” Shelton said. “It’s something that we’re working on right now.”
But how does Penn State go about making those corrections. Shelton’s answer to that, was blunt.
“All we gotta do is finish sacks.”