COLUMBUS, Ohio — Something is wrong with the Ohio State offense.
Saturday’s 20-13 win over Northern Illinois still counts as a win for the defending champs, their quest to again go undefeated and return to the College Football Playoff has yet to be derailed.
But a team stacked with offensive playmakers that every college football fan in America can name, a team expected to rain points down upon each and every opponent was not good Saturday afternoon, struggling to do just about anything on that side of the ball.
What’s going on, coach?
“You can say the offensive line is not blocking well, we're not coaching well on the offensive line. Then all of a sudden the receivers have some issues and the quarterbacks have some issues. It's discombobulated right now,” head coach Urban Meyer said after the game. “And offense, it's a play. Easiest way to think it's 11 people doing the right things at the right time. And we're having some issues with that. It's not happening, obviously. So we'll go back to work and get it fixed and get it fixed fast. I have not lost confidence in our staff and our players. Obviously we have very good players, and we'll get it worked out.”
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Cardale Jones threw two interceptions — 40 percent of the team’s head-scratching five turnovers — and got yanked in favor of J.T. Barrett in the first half. Barrett didn’t fare much better, throwing an interception of his own in the second half and having just one moment of brilliance with a second-quarter touchdown toss to Michael Thomas. But aside from that one throw, the Ohio State quarterbacks, who were hyped in the preseason as far and away the best this sport has to offer, were pedestrian Saturday. In fact, they were worse.
And the struggles on that side of the ball meant a game far closer than it should have been. Northern Illinois has proven itself one of the better Group of 5 programs over recent seasons, but that doesn’t mean it should be competing with what many projected to be one of the better college football teams in recent memory. Yet the Huskies were ahead after a quarter, tied at the half and had multiple opportunities late in the fourth quarter to tie the game or re-take the lead.
Thankfully for Ohio State, the defense was unaffected by whatever haze the offense wandered through Saturday. The Buckeyes’ defense was terrific in shutting down the Huskies just as much as the Buckeyes’ offense was unable to function. NIU amassed just 190 total yards, just 80 through the air, ridiculous numbers that show Ohio State’s dominance on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes sacked Huskies quarterback Drew Hare four times and picked him off twice.
Linebacker Darron Lee turned in the play of the game, an interception of Hare in the third quarter — on the play immediately following Barrett’s interception — that he returned 41 yards for a touchdown. That was the Buckeyes’ final score, putting them up 10 points. They hung on to win by a touchdown, making Lee’s pick six the difference.
“That was a momentum-shifter,” cornerback Eli Apple said. “We needed that at that time, and we had to score on defense.
“He even called it. Before the play even started, on the sideline he said, ‘If they do that play one more time, I’m going to pick it off and run it back.’ He did that. I’m just glad he did.”
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The defense deserves plenty of praise after a game that will only earn the Buckeyes criticism the way the offense played. But make no mistake, this was a championship-level defensive effort. And it bailed out the offense on Saturday.
“If anything, it makes us focus a little bit more (when the offense struggles). When the offense takes a minute to get their rhythm going, we can’t have an off day. If we have an off day, we’ve lost that game,” Lee said. “It makes us focus a little more, and when we get in that defensive huddle, it’s like, ‘Hey it’s on (the) defense, defense going to win the game.”
The problem is that there’s little room for error in the arena of public perception when you’re the No. 1 team in the country. And the Buckeyes looked shockingly unlike the team with that ranking Saturday. Will they be unseated from the top spot? That’s for Sunday to tell us.
It’s not exactly time to panic in Columbus. How can it be? The Buckeyes are still undefeated. But there’s more a sense of surprise, of bewilderment at a team that’s supposed to be mopping the floor with everyone. Ohio State was ripped by some for beating Hawaii by 38 and pitching a shutout. After what could have easily ended in a catastrophic upset, expect that noise to get much, much louder.
“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. “Turnovers, if you can't control the line of scrimmage, you're not going to win a big game. And those two things have to get fixed fast.”