Ohio State entered the season as a unanimous pick as the Associated Press‘ top-ranked team. After an uneven Week 2 win over Hawaii, OSU saw that support erode a bit. After Week 3? They might have to worry about staying in the top two or three, pending the outcome of Ole Miss-Alabama and SMU-TCU.
In a performance eerily reminiscent of the pre-Urban Meyer Luke Fickell days, OSU, at least on one side of the ball, looked sluggish and discombobulated and generally uninspired as it held on to beat Northern Illinois in Columbus by the score of 20-13. The win over a team that was a 35-point underdog was the Buckeyes’ nation’s best 16th straight, with the last loss coming in Week 2 of the 2014 season against Virginia Tech.
NIU, a better team than most had given them credit for when criticizing OSU’s schedule, was in the game until the very end, forcing OSU to punt — after some very questionable clock management and the inability to convert on a third-and-two — with under 1:30 remaining and taking over at their own 20-yard line. Four plays failed to gain a yard, however, as the Buckeyes’ held on and escaped with the win.
Defensively, OSU looked very much like the No. 1 team in the country. Going up against an offense that came into the game ranked eighth in total offense nationally (594 yards per game), the Buckeyes allowed just 190 yards to the Huskies. One of their two touchdowns was scored by the defense, a 41-yard interception return by Darron Lee that turned out to be the game-winning score.
Offensively, though, they didn’t look as if they could beat a Div. III team this afternoon. Hell, a good high school defense may have given them issues, for that matter.
Whether it was turnovers (five, three interceptions and two lost fumbles) or penalties (seven) or just a game-long funk that hovered over the entire unit, the Buckeyes couldn’t get much of anything going on that side of the ball. An ineffective Cardale Jones was replaced in the first half by J.T. Barrett, who was equally ineffective. The two combined to complete 15-of-28 passes for a mere 133 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
As ineffective as the passing game was, the ground attack wasn’t much better. Entering the game, the Buckeyes’ averaged 6.4 yards per carry; against the Huskies, they managed just 4.8 yards a tote.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that, thanks to a very favorable schedule, they have a handful of games to turn things around offensively before their first real test. OSU will likely be favored by double digits in its next seven games — home dates with Western Michigan, Maryland, Penn State and Minnesota, road trips to Indiana, Rutgers and Illinois — before playing host to fourth-ranked Michigan State Nov. 21.
As for whether Ohio State will, or even should, remain No. 1? I can’t speak for the real voters, but I know my Fifth Quarter Top Five will have a decidedly different look up top very early Sunday morning.