Ohio State Survives Scare Against Northern Illinois, 20-13, Yet Questions Remain Over its Offensive Identity

By Eric Seger on September 19, 2015 at 8:45 pm
Urban Meyer and Ohio State have a lot of work to do offensively.

Before he even stepped to the podium, Urban Meyer knew exactly what kind of questions were coming.

"So I know there's going to be a million questions about the offense. And there should be," Meyer said Saturday mere minutes after his top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes survived MAC power Northern Illinois, 20-13. "There's a little discombobulation that's got to get worked out, and we've got good players, good coaches, good scheme."

Ohio State does have good players on offense. Some are even great. We saw that at the end of the 2014 season when the unit shredded three of the top defenses in college football on the way to the first-ever National Championship of the Playoff era.

But with a bevy of talent returning from the squad that dispatched Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon to get to the pinnacle of the sport, the hype surrounding the unit that thrived in Meyer's power-spread attack was justified.

Three weeks into the season, though, that talent is still trying to figure out how it's going to consistently gain yards and score points.

"You can say the offensive line is not blocking well, we're not coaching well on the offensive line," Meyer said. "Then all of a sudden the receivers have some issues and the quarterbacks have some issues. It's discombobulated right now."

Meyer muttered the word "discombobulated" twice more in press conference when quipped about the offense, which only managed 298 yards against a Husky defense that allowed more than an average of 430 yards per game in its first two contests of 2015.

"I think everyone is just basing everything off the end of last year and if you just go back to the third game last year, we really weren't a good team," said star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who needed 23 carries to rack up 108 yards. "I got faith in my boys that we're going to get everything right and every week we're going to get better and we'll be ready when the time comes."

The faith might be there, but make no mistake about it: There's something just off with Ohio State's offense right now.

"Offense, it's a play. Easiest way to think it's 11 people doing the right things at the right time," Meyer said. "And we're having some issues with that. It's not happening, obviously."

Ohio State turned the ball over five times against Northern Illinois, including a trio of interceptions from the battery of J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. The latter earned his third straight start of the season, but was yanked early in the second quarter after completing just 4-of-9 passes for 36 yards and two picks.

“We have a long way to go, coaching and playing. The good thing is we're going to devote a lot of time to getting this thing right.”– Urban Meyer

Barrett had some bright moments as the skies cleared and sun came out, connecting with Michael Thomas on a 23-yard touchdown that looked eerily similar to the score he had against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl when he rose above a defender and tight roped the sideline.

The Buckeyes didn't take the lead until Jack Willoughby's 24-yard field goal midway through the third quarter made it 13-10, capping an 11-play drive that started out like it was meant for a finish in the end zone.

Dontre Wilson snagged a screen pass from Barrett and raced for 15 yards. Elliott carried it three straight times for 23 yards. Curtis Samuel caught a ball over the middle for 16 from Barrett, then followed carries by the quarterback and Elliott with a rush of his own that got them within the 15 of the Huskies.

That's how Meyer's offense is supposed to look — crisp, quick and using a variety of playmakers.

Then Barrett missed an open receiver in the end zone and should have been intercepted and Elliott was stuffed. Things just didn't look right.

"Our offense is kind of getting held back a little bit by us not executing, not being prepared," left tackle Taylor Decker said of the offensive line. "But this time last year, we weren't playing at that level."

Frankly, no one was on offense, but with many of the same guys back, it was a unit that expected to light up a scoreboard — not generate only 13 points against a MAC team. Darron Lee's interception return for a touchdown later in the third proved to be the difference in the game, as well as the defense's multiple stops of Drew Hare and the Husky offense late in the fourth quarter.

Ohio State got the ball back with a chance to burn out the rest of the clock, but couldn't.

"I feel like that was a microcosm of the whole game for us. We could just never really get anything going," Decker said. "For a third and short, we kind of pride ourselves on being able to run the ball. It's just frustrating not being able to get a couple yards on a critical play that could have finished out the game."

Barrett finished the game at quarterback, but even Meyer couldn't comment on who would get the start next week against Western Michigan.

"I don't know that right now," Meyer said. "I haven't had time to think about it."

He's said consistently he's going to play his best players regardless of position, but three weeks into the season and the offense being where it is right now, is there more of a need to pick one guy and stick with him?

"There might be some truth to that," Meyer said.

The questions are going to keep coming at the man who brought in Tim Beck to replace Tom Herman as quarterbacks coach and promoted Ed Warinner to offensive coordinator when Herman left for Houston in January.

After all, the skill is there, it's just not producing. Blame it on opposing defenses playing odd-man fronts, silly mistakes or dumb penalties all you want, but the Buckeyes don't look like the team that was voted as the first unanimous No. 1 in the AP poll's history.

Not right now.

"No. 1, we've got to give our players the right stuff at the right time to give them a chance and then they have to execute it," Meyer said. "And I'm certainly not saying, boy, the offensive line — no, no, that's not it at all. So we have a long way to go, coaching and playing. The good thing is we're going to devote a lot of time to getting this thing right."

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