Coming off a rough offensive week against Hawaii, Ohio State looked to get things back on track against Northern Illinois. The first drive didn't instill very much confidence against the Huskies, as Cardale Jones lofted a questionable throw that was intercepted. A handful of plays later, Northern Illinois found itself in the endzone and a 7-0 lead over the reigning national champions. The game evened out some after another slow start once the Buckeyes got on the board thanks to a Jack Willoughby field goal that cut the lead to 7-3.
The second quarter didn't have many fireworks, if at all, but a J.T. Barrett-Michael Thomas connection through the air helped bring the game to a 10-10 tie, which would stand for the remainder of the first half. With the No. 1 team looking a little out of sorts, an improved second half was necessary for the Buckeyes. While that didn't end up quite happening on the offensive end, it seemed to be a replay of last week's contest with Hawaii. Late in the third quarter, Darron Lee picked off a pass and housed it to increase Ohio State's lead and help seal a win.
While there are plenty of things that aren't working for the Buckeyes right now (and plenty of reasons for frustrations), the only thing that matters is that they're 3-0 heading into week four of the 2015 season. Here are three things we learned from Saturday afternoon's game:
3 things we learned:
1. The defense will likely have to carry Ohio State for now. The second straight game that Ohio State's offense has struggled to show any sort of resemblance to the 2014 unit that helped drive the Buckeyes to a national championship. The Virginia Tech game showed flashes of the potential of what the offense could be, but with lackluster performances against Hawaii and now Northern Illinois, it's become somewhat of a legitimate concern. The defense, however, has more than lived up to expectations.
A solid showing against the Hokies, followed by a shutout of Hawaii, and with holding the Huskies to 13 points (along with creating several turnovers) the Silver Bullets seem to be alive and well in Columbus. Whether it be the defensive linemen in Joey Bosa or Adolphus Washington, or the linebacking core led by Darron Lee, Joshua Perry, and Raekwon McMillan, nearly every position is stocked with talented depth. A first quarter interception by Eli Apple helped stop some major momentum against the Huskies. But the defense still had the game on its shoulders for the majority of the game as Cardale Jones/J.T. Barrett and the rest of the offense failed to form any consistency.
With the Buckeyes clinging to a 13-10 lead, Barrett turned the ball over with an interception. Fortunately, for the second week in a row, the Ohio State defense came up huge as Darron Lee picked off Northern Illinois' Drew Hare for a pick six to give Ohio State a 20-10 lead late in third quarter.
With yet another tuneup game coming up next week, the defense will likely have an easier time against Western Michigan. Still, Northern Illinois is no slouch, and the Buckeyes playing well on defense was undoubtedly the biggest reason for Ohio State's win on Saturday.
2. The offensive struggles aren't on the quarterbacks alone. While Urban Meyer opted to swap Cardale Jones out for J.T. Barrett at the start of the second quarter, the fact of the matter is that it's not just the quarterback position that isn't executing or performing well, particularly at the start of games. The offensive line has struggled for the past two games, even getting called out by Urban Meyer after their win over the Rainbow Warriors. However, once Barrett was given the reins, things seemed to turn up a notch.
But you simply can't ignore the issues that the offensive line have had over the start of this season. Which is surprising, considering the amount of veterans on the line itself. From Taylor Decker to Pat Elflein, in theory, the Buckeyes should have had no major issues transitioning in one new starter on the offensive line. Whether throwing or running, the consistency just isn't there at this point in the season. Ezekiel Elliott had only 43 yards rushing at halftime with 11 carries. Elliott did finish the game with over 100 yards rushing, maintaining his streak of consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Despite that, it's not something Ohio State hasn't dealt with before. After all, before the national championship run last season, the Buckeyes' offensive line was pretty dismal as well, and eventually turned things around.
With Ed Warriner as the offensive coordinator, it's possible the line just hasn't received as much attention as in the past, but it's probable that Ohio State will be taking the next couple of weeks to focus on improving their play up front.
3. J.T. Barrett might run the offense better than Cardale Jones but both weren't great today. There's no question the effect that J.T. Barrett had on the offense after Urban Meyer took Cardale Jones out of the game. On his second drive at quarterback, Barrett took charge and the offense's tempo increased, something that Northern Illinois' defense wasn't quite prepared for. Barrett then found Michael Thomas in the endzone on an excellent touchdown pass, which would eventually end the half with Ohio State tied at 10. But after some rotating of the quarterbacks against Hawaii, it appeared Meyer was content with riding Barrett for the rest of the afternoon.
As of now, it's not totally clear if Barrett will start for the rest of the season, but right now nothing seems to be clear-cut with either of the quarterbacks. Last week, Meyer ensured the media that the Cardale Jones was the Buckeyes' starter through and through, but after throwing two interceptions against the Huskies in the first half, Meyer benched Jones for Barrett. It's been said that Meyer will play who he feels gives Ohio State the best chance to win at any moment, and while Barrett didn't do anything amazing, things did improve slightly with him in at quarterback (even with his late third quarter interception).
Jones finished the day going 4-of-9 passing for 36 yards and 2 picks, while Barrett went 11-of-19 passing, 97 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Even with Barrett's quick start, the offense still wasn't operating at the expectation level for the No. 1 team in the country.