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I Got Five On It: Ohio State will get back on track against Northern Illinois

After a sleepy performance against Hawaii in last week's home opener, The Buckeyes welcome another group of five team into the shoe.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Not too many teams can beat another FBS team soundly and feel like it wasn't their best outing. That's exactly what happened last weekend, as Ohio State shut out Hawaii, 38-0.

The offense started sluggish and never really got on track, compiling 363 total yards. Things also got awkward in the quarterback battle, with JT Barrett making a second quarter appearance, only to struggle as much as Cardale Jones had earlier. All in all, it was a day the Ohio State offense would like to move on from, quickly.

The same can't be said for the defense, which put forth one of its most impressive efforts of the Urban Meyer era, holding Hawaii to 2.7 yards per play and forcing four turnovers. Vonn Bell and Darron Lee were particularly active, combining for two sacks, a forced fumble, an interception, and a fumble return for a touchdown.

Now, the Buckeyes play host to Northern Illinois, who come into The Shoe with a 2-0 record on the season. The Huskies were last seen boat racing Murray State 57-26 last weekend, and came back to defeat UNLV, 38-30 in week one. You might remember Northern Illinois as the other competitor in the 2006 Ted Ginn invitational track meet, which resulted in a 35-12 Ohio State win. A lot has changed since then, but unfortunately for them, Ohio State is once again the top-ranked team in the country.

Here are five things to look for as Ohio State continues its non-conference slate against the Huskies on Saturday:

On the fast track

Against Virginia Tech, The Buckeye offense rolled at the start of each half, finding the endzone on each possession. The offense looked damn near unstoppable and explosive against a very good defense. The Hawaii game? Not so much.

In front of a capacity crowd at Ohio Stadium, the offense wasn't in rhythm from the get go. Despite picking up two first downs, the Buckeyes came up empty on their opening drive. The beginning of the second half was more of the same. In fact, they one-upped their first half inefficiency by producing back-to-back three and outs. The audible groans throughout the shoe even made it feel like 2008 all over again!

Don't expect a repeat performance come Saturday.

UNLV's 30 point game against the Huskies in the first week of the season included touchdowns on the first drive of each half, while Murray State scored to open the second half last week. That may not be a huge sample size to work with, but if those two powerhouses can pull it off, so can the Buckeyes.

Getting back in line

There's no way around it; The offensive line's performance against Hawaii was bad, at least to recent Ohio State standards. Having a shorter turn around between games hurt, especially after facing such a physical team in Virginia Tech. Our own Christopher Jason did a good job of putting what we all saw in perspective:

  • This is the worst performance by the Buckeye offensive line since the 2014 Virginia Tech game. But unlike the Hokie game, this was not due to being unprepared or under-coached, it was due to a lack of execution against a far inferior opponent. The Buckeye offense was limited to an anemic 5.3 yards per play.

That yards per play number was the lowest output since a paltry 3.8 against Penn State last October. While it's understandable that the defenses of Virginia Tech and Penn State would give the Buckeyes trouble, the same can't be expected of Hawaii. The offensive line consistently lost one-on-one battles, failed to open up running lanes with the regularity we've come to expect, and left their quarterbacks on the run.

How much of that can be attributed to the short week? Probably a decent amount. With the horrendous Thursday night football we see from the NFL and ACC each week, it's a good bet that playing football on short rest isn't ideal, especially for linemen, and especially after playing a physical opponent the game before. Now that the team has had a full week to recover, expect the slobs to benefit.

It's hard to gauge the Huskies defense after playing UNLV and Murray State, but they did give up 30 and 26 points in those games, respectively. While their 3.12 yards per rush allowed is solid, NIU ranks in the bottom half of the country in yards per attempt (74th) and yards per play (65th). That should lead to a nice bounce back for the Ohio State offense.

After being the most efficient rushing team in the country last season, it's jarring for that efficiency to be missing to start 2015. it makes sense that we'd overreact a bit, given the high expectations to start the season. But, it's only two games into the season and there is plenty of time to reach those lofty standards again.

Feeding Zeke

Improved offensive line play means more opportunities for Ezekiel Elliott, who didn't need the line to produce last week, anyway. Elliott's per carry numbers weren't great against Hawaii, but he made the most of a poor situation, and pushed forward for 101 yards and three touchdowns.

Those might seem like lackluster numbers to you, but Elliott has played his role well so far this year, as Luke already pointed out:

But what's he's done through two games is not exactly Lydell Ross territory either. For all his limited touches against Virginia Tech and a pedestrian average against Hawaii, Elliott's still totaled 223 yards and four touchdowns in Ohio State's first two games of the young season. If that's disappointing, I suggest you recalibrate your expectations.

Well said. It's a luxury for Urban Meyer that even if the line is struggling, Elliott is more than capable of picking up the slack.

Bullets Back

As lethargic as the offense looked against Hawaii, the defense couldn't have performed much better. Granted, it was Hawaii, but allowing less than three yards per play is nothing to scoff at. The bullets gave Hawaii one scoring opportunity, while collecting four turnovers.

The secondary was particularly salty, shutting down Hawaii's air attack to the tune of 2.8 yards per attempt. It was a good tune up for what Northern Illinois brings to the table.

Huskies quarterback Drew Hare is lighting defenses up so far this season, averaging over 11 yards per attempt, with a 6-0 touchdown to interception ratio. Hare has bolstered that explosiveness with efficiency, completing nearly 80 percent of his passes. 17 of those have been to junior Kenny Golladay, who has the ability to stretch defenses, and comes in averaging a healthy 21 yards per catch. Unfortunately for the Huskies dynamic duo, the Buckeyes secondary will be a bit more formidable than what UNLV or Murray State had to offer.

3 week sample

Northern Illinois may not be a power-5 team, but the Huskies certainly aren't a cupcake. Indeed, if there's anything we've learned so far this season, it's that MAC teams shouldn't be taken lightly. The Huskies in particular have a track record of success, winning at least 11 games the past five seasons. They have size on each side of the ball, and Meyer believes they possess the best offensive line that Ohio State will have faced so far this season.

The bottom line is that Northern Illinois is good enough to give Ohio State a challenge. Hare is a more than adequate passer, and has enough weapons at his disposal to test what has been an impressive Buckeyes secondary thus far. That being said, the biggest concern looks to be the offense, which is ridiculous to think about after how the season began.

But even in the impressive win versus Virginia Tech, Ohio State's offensive efficiency was lacking, and those problems were exacerbated with the struggles against Hawaii. An offensive explosion versus the Huskies would go a long way towards those concerns being put to rest as the Buckeyes march closer towards conference play.

Ultimately, playing Northern Illinois isn't going to draw applause from around the nation, but a big Buckeye win could look better than you might imagine by the end of the season.