Buckeyes Face Tough Challenge with Northern Illinois

The Buckeyes face their toughest challenge yet / Photo: Kyle Robertson - Columbus Dispatch

Can the Buckeyes Rebound After Sluggish Week 2 Win?

Early season games have one of two primary purposes for a big-time college football program. The first is to serve as a measuring stick, often against another premier program. The other is to provide an opportunity to work out all the kinks against a lesser and more than likely "just happy to be here" opponent.

Today's games against Northern Illinois is somewhat of an anomaly. The Huskies are neither a premier program on the same level as Texas, USC, and Miami faced in season's past. They are also not as under matched and undermanned as Kent State a year ago, or any other small conference school the Buckeyes have run off the turf at Ohio Stadium.

The Northern Illinois Huskies are a formidable opponent that just so happens to play in the MAC, a smaller conference many Ohioans are familiar with thanks to Akron and the aforementioned Kent State.

Northern Illinois QB Drew Hare
Photo: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports  
Over the past five seasons, the Huskies have either won or shared the MAC West division championship and three times have won the conference outright. Since 2004 they have played in eight bowl games, including the 2013 Orange Bowl, which they lost to Florida State 31-10. They had been ranked 15 in the BCS headed into that game.

So far in 2015, the Huskies are 2-0 after defeating both UNLV and Murray State at home. They are expected by many to once again compete for and win the MAC behind stud quarterback Drew Hare and one of the biggest and most talented offensive lines in the country. Pound for pound... literally... this could be one of Ohio State's most physically comparable opponents of the year.

Urban Meyer knows this and has been working all week to make sure everyone, players, coaches, and fans alike, knows that this will be no cakewalk and a performance similar to the one displayed last week against Hawaii could be catastrophic.

"Very talented; Big Ten-level talented. This is a big, solid team."

Coming from a talent evaluator with the track record of Urban Meyer, that's not just smoke being blown up someone's behind. He's preparing everyone and making it known. This is going to be a battle. So put on your big boy pants and get ready for a stressful 60 minutes of football.

So what do the Buckeye do to avoid falling into a trap? Here are five things that jump out.

1. Pick a quarterback and stick with him

So far through the first two games of the season we have seen a healthy dose of Cardale Jones with a smattering of J.T. Barrett. Against Virginia Tech, Barrett entered the game in relief when things were well in hand. However, against Hawaii, Meyer inserted Barrett prior to the half hoping to find a spark.

Meyer can't do that. Not again.

By being non-committal with his quarterbacks, Meyer is threatening to undermine their effectiveness, regardless of the talent surrounding them. By playing the back and forth game, neither QB can establish a working rhythm nor can they ever feel fully comfortable. That cannot continue to happen.

That appears to be the case if we are to read between the lines of Meyer this week. He stated that the read option has been fully removed from the offense. That would seem to be a clear cut indication that Meyer will lean more heavily and rely on the performance of Jones moving forward, good or bad.

2. Win the physical battles

As previously stated, the Huskies offensive line is big and experienced. With that will come a level of physicality the Buckeyes have yet to face this season, even from Virginia Tech. For that reason, it will be imperative that the Buckeyes win the physical battle at the line of scrimmage. If not, it could spell disaster.

The Huskies sports a very talented quarterback, Drew Hare, that is capable of making plays with both his arm and his legs. If the Buckeyes are not able to penetrate the line, disrupt his timing, and generally make Hare's life a living hell, it could be a long day at The Shoe defensively.

Fortunately, the Buckeye's defensive line is stout and the linebackers - Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillian, and Joshua Perry - are playing out of their minds and at the highest level imaginable right now. Getting to Hare and limiting his impact shouldn't be a problem... we hope.

3. Feed the beast

Sure, the highlight reel plays turned in by a high-powered offensive attack are a sight to behold. But, one thing is clear - Ezekiel Elliot is the key to the Buckeyes' offensive success.

Michael Thomas fights off a Hawaii defender / Photo: The Plain Dealer
Each and every time so far this season the offense has struggle, Elliot has been their to turn shoulder the burden and turn things around. During week one's win over the Hokies, Zeke work the defensive line down with big run after big run, as limited as his opportunities were. 

In week two against the Rainbow Warriors, Elliot was a work horse. He rushed the ball 27 times for 101 yards and three scores. Simply put, he was the offense.

The Buckeyes need to understand that Elliot's success running the football helps open up everything in the passing game. It is his ever constant threat to break one 80 yards for a touchdown that forces teams to put eight men in the box and commit to stopping the run. That makes everything easier - easier for Cardale Jones, easier for the receivers, easier for everyone.

4. Don't get complacent

This was a key point heading into last week's game against Hawaii and it will remain a point of emphasis until the Buckeyes can prove they are capable of playing a complete 60 minute game. If they don't start this afternoon against Northern Illinois, it may not matter.

It bears repeating, the Huskies are a quality football team capable of pulling a big upset. They'll be even more capable if the Buckeyes give them help along the way. In order to do this, the Buckeyes will need to avoid turnovers and lapses in focus offensively. Defensively, that means taking advantage of opportunities to get extra possessions. I'm looking at you Vonn Bell.

Last week's lapses were easy to explain away. A short week combined with a lack of preparation and recovery to create a very disjointed offensive performance. With so much of the focus on Virginia Tech the week before and little to no time to prepare for the Rainbow Warriors, it's not so surprising that things weren't clicking at full speed. With a full week's prep, today's game should show improvement.

5. Knocking the rust off

One thing people fail to acknowledge about last week's performance was the poor play of the wide receivers. Dropped passes, an inability to get open, it was about as bad a performance as we have seen from the receivers during the Urban Meyer era.

However, three of those receivers - Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, and Corey Smith - were all playing in their first games of the year. after months of not facing live game action, it's easy to understand why they may have underwhelmed in their return to the playing field. In game two, I expect all three to be much, much better.

The question is, which of the numerous receivers on the roster will excel against the Huskies? Will it be Braxton Miller? What about Michael Thomas? Can anyone emerge as the much needed deep threat that is currently missing from the offense? It won't be essential to establish a deep threat against the Huskies, but is something the Buckeyes should begin figuring at as they inch ever closer to Big Ten play.
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