It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Ohio State's tale of two units continued on Saturday, as the Buckeyes struggled to put away the Northern Illinois Huskies on offense but looked ready to take on the world defensively. An early Cardale Jones interception set up a short drive to give the Huskies a first quarter lead before the teams traded field goals to make it 10-3. After Jones' second interception, Urban Meyer pulled him in favor of J.T. Barrett, who was able to connect with Michael Thomas on a beautiful touchdown grab to even things up at 10-10 at the break.
The second half wasn't nearly as explosive or efficient as the Buckeyes would have hoped, but a second Jack Willoughby field goal gave Ohio State its first lead of the day in the third quarter. A Darron Lee pick-six -- more on him in a minute -- ended up being the final score of the day, clinching things at 20-10 for the beleaguered favorites.
There's plenty of good and bad to take away from this one, so let's take a look at who to thank (or blame, if that's more your speed) after another sloppy win:
Blue Chip Stocks:
Darron Lee, LB: There's no overstating Lee's importance to an Ohio State defense that should be putting fear into the hearts of every opponent seeing the Buckeyes on its schedule. After a few early run plays in which Lee was uncharacteristically sealed off of the ball as part of the NIU scoring effort, he found his stride in a big way. The biggest moment, of course, was his pick-six of Huskies QB Drew Hare on a ball that probably shouldn't have been thrown at all; give credit where it's due, though. Lee read the route perfectly, showed off his great hands in making the catch, and won a foot race against a wide receiver to take the ball 55 yards for six.
That's not to mention his sturdy presence as a pass-rusher and run-stopper. Lee was everywhere on Saturday afternoon, making his presence felt on several nice one-on-one open field tackles and some group efforts to take down Huskies RB Joel Bouagnon. Joey Bosa gets plenty of hype, and rightly so, but Lee (and fellow LB Joshua Perry) are the most consistently impactful players on Ohio State's defense. Urban Meyer, for his part, said of Lee after the game that "he's one of the best players in the country. I love that kid."
Sam Hubbard, DE: Going to proffer a hot take here: it's a good thing that Hubbard isn't at Notre Dame playing lacrosse this year. Seriously, how good is this guy? The redshirt freshman has shown the potential for greatness time and time again in this young season, and he continued that streak against a Northern Illinois offensive line that played a decent game as a unit.
His best play from Saturday's contest was a sack of Drew Hare that made Hubbard look like he'd been playing at Ohio State for years. He showed great explosion off the line, a nice set of moves, and generally played heads-up football. It's hard not to notice No. 6 out on the field when he's firing on all cylinders. (Shouts out to Adolphus Washington, too, who took up a whole lot of room in the middle and got after the QB and the tailbacks with equal aplomb in this one.)
Ezekiel Elliott, RB: Feed. This. Man. While Zeke hasn't yet found the gear that made him one of the most explosive guys in college football down the stretch last year, he's instead found steady work running inside (and outside, and over) the tackles. He put up 108 yards on 23 carries against the Huskies -- his eighth consecutive game hitting the century mark -- and though that average has diminished from last season's peak performances, it's still enough to merit an even greater role in the offense moving forward. (Hint, hint.)
We'd be remiss not to mention Elliott's most noteworthy moment from Saturday, one that's sure to keep Ohio State in the highlight reels for at least another week: an open-field hurdle of a defender who was standing up. Next time you're feeling down about this game's result, watch that clip a dozen times or so.
Joshua Perry, LB: Ohio State's Mr. Reliable kept up his streak of excellent performances, quietly recording 10 tackles against NIU. That's his fourth career game with that many tackles, and betting against Perry recording a fifth before season's end would probably be foolish. Perry's most highlight-worthy play was a strong-armed tackle of a Husky ballcarrier that saw the LB a) fight off a crushing block and b) make the majority of the tackle with one hand. He's tenacious, and there aren't many defenders in college football better at getting to the ball play after play after play.
Michael Thomas, WR: Just in case anyone was still sleeping on Thomas' talents, he added another pretty catch to his trophy case on Saturday. With the Ohio State offense displaying a style that could generously be described as "stagnant," Thomas caught a J.T. Barrett pass on the side of the end zone and just barely tapped his toes in-bounds. It was a fantastic display of talent, but it's also become something of a norm for Thomas to get up and make a play when the offense needs him. He's not a Devin Smith avatar, but he doesn't need to be -- he just needs to be himself.
The offensive line: Strange to be writing this a second week in a row, but here we are. After what seemed to be an anomalously bad effort by the Slobs against Hawaii, the big guys up front came out and looked...well, pretty bad, by all accounts. Barrett and Jones weren't running for their lives or ending up on the turf over and over again like in previous weeks, but there still wasn't a whole lot to work with up front. Jacoby Boren put snap after snap onto the shoelaces of his QBs, the line as a whole got very little push for Ezekiel Elliott to get behind, and so on. This is going to be a point of emphasis for the Buckeyes moving forward -- the last two weeks have been a serious wakeup call for the OL.
Taylor Decker, for his part, isn't hiding from the criticism about his unit's play. "It's very frustrating because I know we're capable of executing much better," Decker said after the game. "Our offense is being held back by us." Decker went on to say that he has "all the confidence in the world" in the Buckeyes' OL moving forward.
BUY: The No Fly Zone. For the third straight week, Ohio State's secondary dazzled, proving their opponents to be overmatched in the passing game. It's hard to single out any one of Eli Apple, Tyvis Powell, Vonn Bell, and Gareon Conley -- by and large, they've been outstanding all season. The defense as a whole held NIU to 190 yards of total offense, a steep drop-off from the Huskies' 594-yard average.
SELL: OSU's offensive identity. From top to bottom, there seems to be an issue here. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the media circus that surrounded the QB competition all spring and summer, but it doesn't make it any easier to watch. Owning a Ferrari and repeatedly driving it into the garage door comes to mind. The Buckeyes look rudderless on offense, and the frustration is palpable every time they get the ball. With Cardale Jones on the field they run plays that look tailored to J.T. Barrett's skill set; with Barrett on the field, they don't seem to run any kind of identifiable scheme at all.
Ohio State's defense has DirecTV. Ohio State's offense has cable.— Alex Welch (@alexmwelch) September 19, 2015
Something has to change moving forward, a fact Urban Meyer is cognizant of. It seems like that might come down to naming and sticking with a QB, rather than trying to straddle the fence, per Meyer's post-game comments: "Not that I'm going to call some armchair people and ask them what they think ... But I do believe in game reps. And that's how players get better ... I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about that." Meyer also answered a post-game question in which he said he did not know who will start for the Buckeyes next week.
BUY: Tom Herman's offensive genius. One of the architects of Ohio State's title run is gone to Houston, and his presence is sorely missed. Everything from the QBs' confidence to the discipline up front to the play-calling seems to have taken a bit of a tailspin since Week 1, and it's becoming evident just how steadying a presence Herman was to this young offense last season.
Look, we knew this was coming. As T. Boone Pickens once told Drake, the first million is hard, but the first billion is even harder. There's a completely different set of challenges that comes with being the defending national champions, one that -- privileged as these problems might seem -- could actually be harder to overcome than the problems that exist for a Bill Simmons "NOBODY BELIEVED IN US!!!!!!"-type team, which the Buckeyes embraced through and through in 2014. It's hard to watch now, but it kind of feels like this game might be the gut-check, come-to-Jesus moment that the Ohio State program has sorely needed this year. Stay tuned.