Top-ranked Ohio State was only leading underdog Northern Illinois by three points when late in the third quarter redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett’s pass was intercepted by the Huskies.
Momentum was looking to be tilting in favor of NIU as its offense trotted out on the field, fresh off a turnover, down just 13-10.
Redshirt junior quarterback Drew Hare took the snap and turned to his left to throw a quick screen to a receiver like he had successfully done a few times earlier in the game.
Except this time, the ball never touched NIU’s Tommylee Lewis’ hands.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Darron Lee bolted in front of Lewis and intercepted the ball. Without breaking stride, Lee raced toward the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown to extend OSU’s lead to 10 points.
That play seemingly jolted the momentum back in favor of the Buckeyes.
Lee said that after Barrett’s interception and the outcome of the game still in limbo, he knew the defense needed to step up.
“(I) knew we needed something,” Lee said following OSU’s 20-13 victory. “(I) just tried to make something happen.”
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said Lee had told him earlier in the game that the next time the Huskies tried to run that play, he was going to do something about it.
“He called it out on the sidelines, kinda maybe called his shot a little,” Fickell said. “He said, ‘I’m picking one of those things if they run that again.’”
The coordinator said he told Lee to just focus on doing his job, rather than trying to be a hero, but Lee recognized it at a time when the team needed a play to go their way.
“The rest is history,” Fickell said.
OSU’s offense turned in another up-and-down performance that included five turnovers — three interceptions, a fumble and a turnover on downs — and the benching of redshirt junior Cardale Jones for Barrett, but plays like Lee’s and the overall performance of the defense made it possible for the Buckeyes to evade NIU’s upset bid.
Heading into the game, the Husky offense was averaging a notch under 600 yards per game. On Saturday at Ohio Stadium, it only managed to scrape together 190 yards of total offense.
“That’s exceptional play by our defense,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said.
NIU’s redshirt junior quarterback Drew Hare came to Columbus completing 78 percent of his passes for an average of 359 passing yards per game, but the O’Fallon, Missouri, native found no such success against OSU’s secondary.
Hare completed just 14 of 31 passes for 80 yards and no touchdowns. It was the second game in a row that the opposing quarterback threw for less than the century mark.
“That’s unheard of,” Meyer said. “Our secondary across the boards is as fine as any secondary I’ve had.”
Junior safety Vonn Bell, who tied for the team lead with 10 tackles, echoed Meyer’s praise of the defensive backfield.
“I think we’re playing phenomenal,” he said. “We’re playing at a high level, so hats off to those guys.”
Hare came into the game with four passes to redshirt junior wide receiver Kenny Golladay that resulted in gains of 40 yards or more. Those long pass plays were nonexistent against the Scarlet and Gray.
“We’re not giving up anything deep and we’re being disciplined, which allows us to make plays down the field,” Bell said.
Fickell said a lot of planning was involved to limit those large gains.
“There was a whole lot of scheming. (Redshirt sophomore Gareon Conley) was up on (Golladay), pressed up pretty much most of the game,” Fickell said.
He said the group of NIU wideouts was “as good as any we’ve seen,” but that the coaches challenged the secondary to step up and make plays.
“They took the challenge,” Fickell said.
With the offense not performing at its familiar rate, it was on the secondary and the defense as a whole to make plays and help out the other side of the ball.
“We’re gonna have to pick one another up when someone’s down and vice versa,” Fickell said.
But even with the stout effort by the Scarlet and Gray defense, the players know the whole team needs to improve and get better for their scheduled game against Western Michigan on Sept. 26 in Columbus.
“As a team, we want to be going on all cylinders,” Lee said. “So we just have to get things corrected and be better next week.”