Ohio State beat Northern Illinois on Saturday, 20-13, despite quarterback Cardale Jones' two first-half interceptions and his subsequent benching in favor of J.T. Barrett. The No.1 Buckeyes moved to 3-0 ahead of a game against Western Michigan next week.
Head coach Urban Meyer pulled Jones after his second pick of the afternoon, which came just a minute into the second quarter. It was the worst start of Jones' career, and Barrett's entry didn't exactly cause an eruption. Barrett finished 11-of-19 passing for 97 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Before he exited, Jones was 4-of-9 passing for 36 yards and the two turnovers. By his passer rating, it was the worst start of Jones' career (by a lot). By the same metric, it was also among Barrett's worst outings. In general, Saturday wasn't the best day to be a blue-chip Buckeyes quarterback.
However, Northern Illinois couldn't do much of anything against Luke Fickell's Ohio State defense. The Huskies managed a touchdown on their first drive but turned cold from there. Quarterback Drew Hare had his own problems, throwing two interceptions and firing with sometimes erratic accuracy. A Darron Lee pick-six of Hare in the third quarter took the game from a three- to ten-point margin and snuffed out a lot of its drama.
After a field goal made their deficit just a touchdown, the Huskies had three different chances to mount game-tying drives in the final six minutes. Ohio State denied them all three times. NIU's last series netted zero yardage.
Three things to know
1. Two sub-par outings in a row for the Ohio State offense. As Christopher Jason of Land-Grant Holy Land has detailed, Ohio State's offense wasn't Ohio State-like in last week's win over Hawaii. Against NIU, things didn't get better. Jones was bad, and the Buckeyes stayed in check after Barrett replaced him. It's hard to say how much significance Ohio State's relative struggles should hold. On the one hand, it's nonsense that an offense so talented could struggle so much against non-power opposition. On the other, it's not like Ohio State hasn't struggled early in seasons before. Spoiler alert: The Buckeyes will be fine.
2. How about that Northern Illinois defense? Buckeye struggles notwithstanding, you don't hold this offense to 4.5 yards per play (298 total) without doing something very right. To a degree, we already knew the Huskies could play some D, because you don't win five consecutive MAC West titles without playing some D. But it's still fairly surprising. The Huskies placed 80th in Bill Connelly's defensive S&P+ last year, and they'd given up an ordinary enough 56 points in their first two games of 2015. Against the Buckeyes, they chased one national title-winning quarterback and made another sweat.
3. Ohio State's defensive playmakers shined. Linebackers Joshua Perry and Raekwon McMillan filled the box score with tackles. So did safety Vonn Bell. Linebacker Darron Lee didn't, but his interception run-back in the fourth quarter was the cushioning the Buckeyes needed. At the end of the day, these guys – plus Joey Bosa and others on the defense – are the biggest reason Ohio State is probably going back to the College Football Playoff. They don't give up yards, they don't give up points and they don't let their team lose.