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5 things to watch for between Ohio State and Northern Illinois

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Redshirt sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall carries the ball on Sept. 12 against Hawaii. OSU won 38-0. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor

Redshirt sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall carries the ball on Sept. 12 against Hawaii. OSU won 38-0.
Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor

Ohio State’s Week 3 matchup against Northern Illinois is set for 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Here are five things The Lantern sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz will be looking out for in the matchup between the two 2-0 teams.

Will OSU’s secondary maintain its lockdown play?

OSU’s secondary has been playing well through the first two games, only allowing a total of 277 passing yards. That effort has earned praise from coach Urban Meyer.

“Our secondary is playing at a very, very high level,” Meyer said on Monday. “Both (redshirt sophomores Eli Apple and Gareon Conley) are playing great.”

On Saturday, the secondary will get its biggest test to date against the high-octane aerial attack of Northern Illinois (2-0).

Through two contests, Huskies redshirt junior quarterback Drew Hare is averaging 374.5 passing yards, 178.5 of which are going to redshirt junior wide receiver Kenny Golladay.

The pressure is on Conley and Apple, along with safeties Tyvis Powell, a redshirt junior, and Vonn Bell, a true junior, to slow down NIU’s passing game.

If the Huskies are going to have a shot to beat the Buckeyes, they will have to get the best of OSU’s secondary.

But that core group of four — Conley, Apple, Powell and Bell — has been lights out so far. If they continue to be, it could be a long day for NIU.

Can Willoughby keep it in-bounds?

In OSU’s opener at Virginia Tech, redshirt senior Jack Willoughby made his Buckeyes debut by missing his only field goal and kicking one of his seven kickoffs out of bounds.

Against Hawaii five days later, Willoughby hit the first field goal of his career, but two of his seven kickoffs got penalized for going out of bounds. That brought his count of penalties on kickoffs to three out of 14 (21.4 percent).

Willoughby attributed his kicks toward the sideline to the coaching staff’s instruction to attempt to get his kickoffs into the corner on the left side of the coverage team, which caused some of them to take bad bounces or hook too far.

Still, Willoughby said there is no excuse for the amount of penalties he has already been tagged for.

“It’s something that I shouldn’t be doing, and I plan to correct it,” he said.

Offensive line play

Against the Rainbow Warriors, the offensive line took a step back after a dominating performance versus Virginia Tech.

“The Slobs” struggled to control the line of scrimmage as they didn’t get any push on the Hawaii front four nor did they create any running lanes. In Week 2, the Buckeyes only averaged 3.7 yards per attempt, compared to the 9.7 they averaged in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The poor performance has caught Meyer’s attention.

“The biggest concern is the offensive line,” he said on Monday. “Our success over the last three years and two games is because of our offensive line, and with that comes a lot of responsibility. We expect them to play much better.”

NIU’s defense has not been anything to write home about — they rank No. 95 in the country for total defense, giving up 433 yards per game — meaning OSU’s offensive isn’t dealing with the most difficult front seven.

The Buckeyes’ O-line needs to bounce back this week by recreating the running lanes that existed against Virginia Tech and establishing a strong pocket for redshirt junior quarterback Cardale Jones to throw from.

Meyer is expecting the unit to bounce back and do just that.

“So we’ve just got to play better,” he said. “And the great thing is I have an excellent line coach and excellent players, and I imagine they’re going to have a great week.”

Will Bosa make his presence felt?

Junior defensive end Joey Bosa, a unanimous All-American in 2014, made his season debut against Hawaii after missing the opener due to suspension.

It was a rather anticlimactic return.

Bosa had just two tackles — one solo, one assisted. In the second quarter, he did sack Hawaii quarterback Max Wittek for a 9-yard loss, but a defensive holding flag negated the play.

Against the Huskies, it will be interesting to see how disruptive Bosa is. In 2014, he tore every offensive line he faced to pieces. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before he gets back to that level.

When Bosa quickly gets into backfields and occupies a second blocker, it creates blitzing lanes for OSU’s linebackers, such as senior Joshua Perry or sophomore Raekwon McMillan. The more disruptive he is, the easier it his for his teammates to make plays.

If Bosa gets back to his levels of production from 2014 on Saturday against NIU, the Buckeyes will be in the driver’s seat to victory. But the question is whether or not we will see that Bosa.

Can Cardale Jones get it together?

When Jones won the starting quarterback job over redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett, Meyer said it was because the job was Jones’ to lose after finishing 2014 as the starter, and he did nothing to warrant losing the spot.

However, the coach didn’t feel the same way in each of OSU’s first two games, as he said he considered replacing Jones at Virginia Tech and did end up putting Barrett in for much of the second quarter against Hawaii.

Had Barrett — who completed just 8 of 15 passes for 70 yards against Hawaii, including 5-of-12 for 41 yards in the first half after coming in for Jones — played better, it might be Jones standing on the sideline against NIU.

Instead, the Cleveland native should still be in line for his sixth straight start going back to last season. Though he has shown flashes of greatness, Jones is 22-of-37 for 298 yards and two scores through two games.

Jones established himself as a bonafide star during his three starts in OSU’s postseason games last season, throwing for 742 yards and five touchdowns.

While he hasn’t been terrible this year, his shaky start to the season has stood as a reminder that he came into the 2014 season as the third-string quarterback before Braxton Miller and Barrett got injured.

He could very well break out against an NIU defense ranked 104th in passing yards allowed, but with Meyer displeased with his performance in the first two games, he might have a weak grip on the starting job if he has more problems reading the defense and hitting his targets.

Saturday’s game could stand as a sink-or-swim opportunity for the quarterback.

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