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Should Ohio State Remain No. 1 After Ugly Win vs. Northern Illinois?

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterSeptember 20, 2015

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer reacts to missing a fourth down conversion against Northern Illinois during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State won 20-13. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With two minutes, 21 seconds remaining, Ohio State lined up on its own 36-yard line with the chance to finally put away Northern Illinois on a 3rd-and-2.

Center Jacoby Boren snapped the ball in the shotgun to quarterback J.T. Barrett, who handed it off to running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was promptly stuffed by Huskies linebacker Boomer Mays and safety Marlon Moore after just a one-yard gain.

On cue, the Buckeyes' punting unit trotted onto the field. Fourth down. Northern Illinois would live to fight another series.

"That was a microcosm of the game for us," Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker said. "We could just never get anything going."

Forcing a turnover on downs on the ensuing drive, the Buckeyes ultimately held on to a much closer-than-expected 20-13 victory over their opponents from the Mid-American Conference. But throughout Saturday's narrow escape, Ohio State hardly looked like the nation's No. 1 team, thanks in large part to an offensive performance that was one of the Buckeyes' worst since Urban Meyer arrived in Columbus in 2012.

"I know there's going to be a million questions about the offense—and there should be," Meyer said at the start of his postgame press conference. "There's a little discombobulation."

Sep 19, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) runs into Northern Illinois Huskies safety Marlon Moore (2) and Huskies linebacker Boomer Mays (45)during the second half at Ohio Stadium. The Ohio State Buckeyes won 2
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
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"Discombobulation" might be a bit of an understatement for a unit that compiled five turnovers, gained 298 yards and scored just 13 points against its overmatched opponent. Evidenced by a 2-of-13 success rate on third down, the Ohio State offense lacked any semblance of an identity Saturday, with the players and the play-calling both bearing the blame.

But perhaps the biggest question mark for the Buckeyes remains the play of their quarterbacks, with Meyer having yet to settle on whether Barrett or Cardale Jones is his No. 1 signal-caller.

"Good question," Meyer said when asked who his starting quarterback is. "I don't know that right now. I haven't had time to think about it."

Indecisiveness has been prevalent in Meyer's unprecedented quarterback conundrum, with the Buckeyes head coach making the call to bring in Barrett for Jones in the first half for the second consecutive week. This time, however, Meyer opted to stick with the reigning Big Ten Quarterback of the Year over the national-champion signal-caller, although once again, neither player's stat lines did much to merit the starting job.

Jones completed four of his nine pass attempts for 36 yards and two interceptions for a quarterback rating of 33.6. Barrett made 11 of his 19 throws for 97 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a QB rating of 107.6.

The offensive line—again—struggled with a surprising 3-4 defensive front from its opponent, and the running game was solid but hardly spectacular. For an offense that was expected to be one of the nation's best, the Buckeyes appear to barely be scratching the surface of their potential.

"It's just frustrating, knowing what we're capable of and what we can do to teams and not playing to that level," Decker said. "We just gotta get it figured out."

Sep 19, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) gets free for a gain as Northern Illinois Huskies linebacker Sean Folliard (40) tackles during the second quarter at Ohio Stadium. The game is tied 10-10 at half.  Mandator
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

But for as troubling as Ohio State's offensive play was, the most alarming part of Saturday's game may not have had anything to do with the Buckeyes' form. For as poorly as Ohio State performed, undermanned Northern Illinois didn't play much better yet still had a chance to tie—or potentially take the lead—with two late fourth-quarter drives.

The Huskies committed three turnovers of their own and gained just 190 yards on the day, but they still matched the Buckeyes on the scoreboard as far as offenses were concerned. If not for a dominating performance from the Ohio State defense, which included a pick-six from linebacker Darron Lee, the nation's No. 1 team could've been looking at a historic upset on its home field.

And as impressive as both teams' units played, make no mistake: This was hardly a defensive slugfest but rather a flat-out struggle. The Buckeyes might have won last year's national title, and Northern Illinois may currently wear the MAC's crown, but this was no night of champions. It was just two teams struggling to find consistency with the ball in their hands.

For the Huskies, that's fine—a moral victory on the road against the nation's top-ranked team is nothing to be ashamed of, no matter how many missed opportunities to cash in may have been left on the field.

But for Ohio State—the first-ever unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the AP Top 25—this is the continuation of an alarming trend and perhaps reason enough for the Buckeyes to lose their status as the country's top-ranked squad.

"I don't really want to speak on that," Lee answered when asked about Ohio State's ranking. "We've got a lot of work to do."

Sep 19, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer gives instructions to his defenes as they take the field against the Northern Illinois Huskies at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State won the game 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA T
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe not so much on defense, where Lee plays, but offensively, the Buckeyes hardly look like a championship-caliber squad at the moment. The talent is there—that was proven last winter—but through the first three weeks of the campaign, the magic of Ohio State's run to last season's national title has yet to be replicated.

Meyer knows changes must be made. The Buckeyes may no longer be the nation's No. 1 team come Monday, but plenty of time remains for Ohio State to regain its championship form.

After all, Saturday's game still resulted in a win for OSU—even if it came in a form Meyer knows is not sustainable.

"I'm OK with winning games," Meyer said. "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.

"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."

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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