COLUMBUS — There is no continuation rule in college football.
That became glaringly evident when Ohio State, even with the majority of its starters back from last season’s national champions, looked nothing like the team that made an electrifying run to the national title when it held on to beat Northern Illinois 20-13 on Saturday.
The No. 1-ranked Buckeyes sputtered and lurched their way through a second consecutive disappointing offensive performance.
They managed just 298 yards total offense against a Northern Illinois defense that had given up an average of 433 yards a game in its first two games.
This came one week after OSU gained a sub-par 363 yards against Hawaii, an effort that was written off by many people as being the result of playing Virginia Tech on Monday and then coming back only five days later against Hawaii.
Saturday’s game left coach Urban Meyer searching for a word that described it.
He settled on “discombobulated,” which might have been a polite way of saying confused.
It started early, when starting quarterback Cardale Jones threw two interceptions in the first 16 minutes of the game. The first led to a Northern Illinois touchdown and the second set up a field goal that gave the Huskies a 10-3 lead with 12:20 left in the first half.
J.T. Barrett replaced Jones after the second pick and played the rest of the game, but he was off and on, hitting 11 of 19 for only 97 yards and one touchdown.
OSU turned the ball over five times — three interceptions and two fumbles.
There was no confusion that what saved the Buckeyes from a possibly monumental tumble was their defense. It is the one part of the team that is playing as well or better than it did in last year’s postseason wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.
The game-turning play was a 41-yard interception return by sophomore linebacker Darron Lee that gave Ohio State a 20-10 lead with 1:44 left in the third quarter.
Northern Illinois (2-1) cut the lead to 20-13 on Christian Hagan’s third field goal of the game with 7:46 to play. The Huskies had three more possessions but OSU’s defenses stopped them with the help of two quarterback sacks.
Lee said the defense felt an extra incentive to make plays when it saw the offense struggling.
“It makes us focus a little bit more. When the offense can’t get their rhythm going, we can’t have an off day. If we’d had an off day we would have lost that game,” he said.
Lee’s touchdown was the third of his career. He had two long fumble returns for touchdowns last year.
“When you’ve got an opportunity to make a play, go make a play,” he said.
Northern Illinois, bidding to pull off the biggest upset ever by a Mid-American Conference team against a Big Ten team, took a 7-0 lead on a 5-yard run by Aregeros Turner three plays after Jones’ first interception.
Ohio State cut the lead to 7-3 on a 31-yard field goal by Jake Willoughby. After the Huskies answered with a field goal by Hagan, OSU struck quickly on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Barrett to Michael Thomas to tie the game 10-10.
Willoughby nailed a 24-yard field goal for a 13-10 lead with 8:27 left in the third quarter.
Lee’s interception for a score was important not only for the points it produced, but because of its timing.
It came one play after Northern Illinois linebacker Sean Follard had intercepted Barrett to set up the Huskies at their own 45 yard line. “He’s one of the best players in the country,” Meyer said. “I love that kid.”