COLUMBUS (AP) — For a team that seemed to have two great quarterbacks, Ohio State is now searching for one.
Cardale Jones started and threw two interceptions, J.T. Barrett finished and was not much better, but Darron Lee and Ohio State’s defense bailed out the struggling offense and the top-ranked Buckeyes beat Northern Illinois 20-13 on Saturday.
For the second straight week neither quarterback was particularly effective against an opponent Ohio State was expected to blow out. So who starts next week?
“Good question. And I don’t know that right now,” coach Urban Meyer said. “I haven’t had time to think about it?”
Jones went to the bench in the second quarter. Barrett threw a touchdown pass and a pick. Ohio State had five turnovers in all and averaged only 4.5 yards per play, but still managed to extend the nation’s longest winning streak to 16 games.
“It’s discombobulated right now,” Meyer said about the offense.
Lee made a spectacular interception and returned it for a 41-yard touchdown in the third quarter to make it 20-10, but unlike last week, when the Buckeyes shook free of Hawaii in the second half, they couldn’t ditch Northern Illinois (2-1).
The Huskies cut the lead to 20-13 on a field goal with 7:46 left in the fourth quarter, and got the ball back when Marlon Moore forced a fumble by Curtis Samuel and Northern Illinois recovered at its 25 with 4:05 left in the game.
The Buckeyes clamped down again with Joey Bosa and Sam Hubbard crunching Drew Hare for a sack on third-and-long. In need of one first down to wrap it up, Ohio State came up short.
Northern Illinois’ last drive started at its 20 with 1:34 left, but Hare threw four incomplete passes under duress and Ohio State could finally take a knee.
The big question heading into the season for Ohio State was who would start at quarterback: The Big Ten player of the year (Barrett) or the guy who led the Buckeyes to the national championship (Jones).
The answer turned out to be Jones, but Meyer insisted both guys would play and they did in the first two games.
The next question was: What would happen if Jones struggled? How much patience would Meyer have with his starter?
The answer appears to be: Not all that much.
Jones misfired on his first pass of the game and appeared upset with receiver Jalin Marshall. Jones’ next throw was too high to an open Braxton Miller and picked off by Shawn Lurry, who returned it to the Buckeyes 22.
Three plays later Aregeros Turner swept around right end for a touchdown that made it 7-0.
Ezekiel Elliott fumbled the ball away on a fourth-and-short on Ohio State’s next possession, but Eli Apple intercepted right back for the Buckeyes and they turned it into a field goal.
Lurry snagged another pass from Jones, this time one he was trying to squeeze in between defenders when he had an open receiver underneath, in the second quarter. That led to a Huskies field goal and got Barrett warming up on the sideline.
Barrett’s first possession was a three-and-out, but on his second he connected with Michael Thomas on a 23-yeard touchdown pass to tie the game at 10 with 8:21 left in the second quarter.
Northern Illinois had beaten the last three Big Ten teams it has faced. The Buckeyes were a big step up from Iowa, Purdue and Northwestern — or at least it seemed that way.
The defending Mid-American Conference champion Huskies hung tough with the defending national champions, despite generating only 190 yards and 10 first downs.
Barrett started the second half and led a steady drive that stalled in the red zone, but Jack Willoughby booted a 23-yard field goal to give the Buckeyes their first lead of the day at 13-10.
The Ohio State defense finally took matters upon themselves. Lee jumped a quick pass to the sideline, picked it off, stiff-armed one Huskie and then ran away from another he outweighs by about 60 pounds. The linebacker’s touchdown made it 20-10 with 1:44 left in the third. The nervous tension at Ohio State was released — temporarily.