Columbus, Ohio — For a team that seemed to have two great quarterbacks, Ohio State is now searching for one.
Cardale Jones started and threw two interceptions, J.T. Barrett finished and was not much better, but linebacker Darron Lee and Ohio State’s defense bailed out the struggling offense and the top-ranked Buckeyes beat Northern Illinois 20-13 on Saturday.
For the second straight week neither quarterback was particularly effective against an opponent Ohio State was expected to blow out. So who starts next week?
“Good question. And I don’t know that right now,” coach Urban Meyer said. “I haven’t had time to think about it.”
Jones went to the bench in the second quarter. Barrett threw a touchdown pass and a pick. Ohio State had five turnovers in all and averaged only 4.5 yards per play, but still managed to extend the nation’s longest winning streak to 16 games.
“It’s discombobulated right now,” Meyer said about the offense.
Lee made a spectacular interception and returned it for a 41-yard touchdown in the third quarter to make it 20-10. Unlike last week, when the Buckeyes shook free of Hawaii in the second half, they couldn’t ditch Northern Illinois (2-1).
The Huskies cut the lead to 20-13 on a field goal with 7:46 left in the fourth quarter and had two possessions on which they could have tied it with a touchdown. Both times Joey Bosa and the Buckeyes D did not allow a first down.
“Their front seven is probably as good as anyone’s in the country,” Huskies quarterback Drew Hare said.
It wasn’t just a quarterback problem for the Buckeyes. Again the offensive line struggled to move a defense that played a three-man front. NIU had shown a 4-3 look in its previous games. Ezekiel Elliott had 108 yards on 23 carries, but none longer than 13 yards.
“Obviously, everybody is going to play odd (3-4) against us now. We showed we struggle against it,” tackle Taylor Decker said. “That takes away our double team. We like to run the ball up the middle.”
The big question heading into the season for Ohio State was who would start at quarterback: The Big Ten player of the year (Barrett) or the guy who led the Buckeyes to the national championship (Jones)?
The answer turned out to be Jones, but Meyer insisted both guys would play and they have.
The next question was: What would happen if Jones struggled? How much patience would Meyer have with his starter?
The answer appears to be: Not all that much.
Jones’ second pass of the game was too high to an open Braxton Miller and picked off by Shawun Lurry. Three plays later, Aregeros Turner made it 7-0 NIU on a 5-yard sweep.
Lurry snagged another pass from Jones, this time one he was trying to squeeze between defenders, in the second quarter. That led to a Huskies field goal and got Barrett warming up on the sideline.
Barrett’s first possession was a three-and-out, but on his second he connected with Michael Thomas on a 23-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 10 with 8:21 left in the second quarter.
Northern Illinois had beaten the last three Big Ten teams it faced. The Buckeyes were a big step up from Iowa, Purdue and Northwestern, but the defending Mid-American Conference champions hung tough, despite generating only 190 yards and 10 first downs.
With the Buckeyes offense snarled, the defenders took matters into their own hands. Lee jumped a quick pass to the sideline, picked it off, stiff-armed one Huskie and then ran away from another he outweighs by about 60 pounds.
“I got the look I wanted outside,” Hare said. “I tried to throw the screen and their guy made a great play.”
Lee said he knew what play was coming by how the Huskies lined up.
“We needed to make something happen,” Lee said.
The linebacker’s touchdown made it 20-10 with 1:44 left in the third.
It was the second week in a row Ohio State scored a defensive touchdown and held its opponent under 100 yards passing. The offense that looked unstoppable in the opener at Virginia Tech has been nowhere to be found.
Meyer said lack of game reps for the quarterbacks could be a problem. He wouldn’t commit to a full diagnosis until after he saw the film. The basic problems, though, are simple to see.
“Turnovers, if you can’t control the line of scrimmage, you’re not going to win a big game,” Meyer said. “And those two things have to get fixed fast.”