The quarterback carousel continued for Ohio State on Saturday, as once again a strong defensive performance was needed to take the 20-13 victory over Northern Illinois.
“That’s a heck of a football team,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Darron Lee said. “That felt more like a Big Ten team, to be honest with you.”
Redshirt junior Cardale Jones started at quarterback for the third straight game this season and sixth overall, but a poor first-quarter performance had him benched in favor of redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett for the second consecutive game.
Despite hanging on for the victory, OSU coach Urban Meyer said his team is setting up for a letdown with its recent play.
“I’m OK with winning games. I’m not OK with five turnovers and lacking execution and not being able to control the line of scrimmage, because that’s a recipe for failure, at some point you’ll fail miserably,” Meyer said.
The Huskies (2-1) jumped over OSU (3-0) early, needing just three plays to eclipse the number of points OSU allowed the week before. After Jones airmailed a pass on third-and-long that was intercepted and returned to the OSU 25-yard line, the Huskies scored on an end-around run by junior wide receiver Aregeros Turner from five yards away.
OSU’s following drive ended in another turnover, as junior running back Ezekiel Elliott fumbled the ball on a fourth-down run in Huskies’ territory. Two plays later, however, the turnover parade turned in OSU’s favor, as NIU’s redshirt junior quarterback Drew Hare was intercepted by redshirt sophomore cornerback Eli Apple.
The interception was Apple’s first of the season and fourth of his career. The Buckeyes got something out of the opportunity, as a 25-yard pass to redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas helped set up a 31-yard field goal by redshirt senior Jack Willoughby to make the score 7-3.
After forcing a NIU punt, the OSU offense continued to struggle, as a three-and-out forced the Buckeyes to end the first quarter down by four.
Jones struggled mightily in the opening quarter, going 4-of-8 for 36 yards and an interception against an NIU defense that was ranked 104th in passing yards allowed coming into the game.
The change of quarter was not an immediate cure for Jones’ struggles as his first pass of the quarter was intercepted in OSU territory for his second interception and the Buckeyes’ third turnover. The Huskies used that to make a 37-yard field goal to go back up by seven.
At that point, for the second consecutive game, Meyer gave Jones a second-quarter hook, inserting Barrett into the game.
Barrett, who failed to take advantage of his chance against Hawaii by going 8-of-15 for 70 yards, did not start out much better on Saturday, completing a pitch for one yard and then nearly throwing an interception on third down for OSU’s second three-and-out.
After the Buckeyes returned the favor by forcing a quick NIU punt, redshirt sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall gave the home crowd of 104,095 something to cheer about for the first time in about 15 minutes of play time by returning the punt 26 yards to the NIU 44-yard line.
OSU took that momentum and worked quickly, using plays of seven, eight, six and 23 yards to tie the game. The touchdown came on a deep route to Thomas in the end zone, who kept a foot in-bounds while twisting to make the catch in one-on-one coverage.
Barrett completed both pass attempts he had on the drive for 30 yards and his second touchdown pass of the season. The score was Thomas’ second, as well.
A turnover on downs brought OSU’s first-half turnover count to four, one more than its total in the first two games.
Barrett and Jones combined to go just 7-of-15 in the opening half for 67 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, as the Buckeyes and Huskies went into the break tied at 10.
Unlike the previous game in which Jones resumed the quarterback duties to begin the second half, the Cleveland native remained on the bench with Barrett continuing to handle quarterback duties.
“We felt like he gave us the best chance to move the ball down the field,” Meyer said.
Barrett and Elliott came out of the half quickly, with one or both being involved in every play on an 11-play, 73-yard drive. However, Elliott was stopped short on a third-down run, and OSU was held to a 24-yard field goal to take a 13-10 lead.
Despite getting good field position on its next two drives, OSU was unable to add to the lead, with the second drive ending with Barrett throwing an interception.
Just one play after that, though, Lee came up with an interception of his own and then some. Hare attempted a screen pass that the redshirt sophomore jumped and then returned 41 yards for a touchdown and a 10-point lead.
The score was the first of Lee’s career, and his third interception after two in 2014.
“(I) knew we need something,” Lee said. “(I) just tried to make something happen.”
OSU’s defense continued to hold strong with the lead, holding NIU without a score on its next eight drives after scoring on two of its first five. The Huskies finally got back on the scoreboard midway through the fourth quarter with a 31-yard field goal following an 11-play drive.
The Huskies got the ball back after an OSU fumble with just over four minutes to go, needing 75 yards to tie the game. However, they ended up losing yards after a sack by redshirt freshman defensive lineman Sam Hubbard and junior defensive lineman Joey Bosa on third down — Hubbard’s second sack of the day and Bosa’s first sack credit of the year.
“It felt great. We both kind of collapsed on him at the same time, and it was a big moment,” Hubbard said. “We knew we had to get that play to get that stop and make sure they weren’t going to drive down and tie the game up.”
After the Buckeyes failed to get a first down, the Huskies got one last chance starting from their own 20-yard line. Four incomplete passes by Hare later, OSU took over in victory formation for its nation-leading 16th straight victory.
Hare, who came into the game fifth in the nation with 383.5 yards of total offense per game, was held to just 80 yards passing and 23 on the ground.
“We knew that he was going to be a guy who could do a lot of things. He could throw the ball well, he could run well, so a big thing for us was discipline,” senior linebacker Joshua Perry said.
Across from Hare, Barrett went 11-of-19 for 97 yards and ran for 18 more in his three quarters of work.
Elliott had scored a touchdown in his last seven games coming into Saturday’s matchup, but he was held without one. He did, however, rush for 108 yards to extend his streak of games with at least 100 yards rushing to eight.
OSU is next set to complete its three-game home stand with a game against Western Michigan. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.