For the second week in a row, the Ohio State offense had become stagnant.
J.T. Barrett had spelled a struggling Cardale Jones and thrown the third interception of the day for the Buckeyes, who led just 13-10 late in the third quarter.
Enter sophomore linebacker, Darron Lee.
The very next play, Lee read a bubble screen pass from Northern Illinois quarterback Drew Hare, stepped in front of a blocker and took the interception back 41 yards for his third career score.
And he even called his shot before the play.
“We really needed that at that time and had a score on defense,” sophomore corner Eli Apple said after the 20-13 win. “He even called it before the play even started, on the sideline. He was saying, 'If they do that play one more time, I'm going to jump it and pick it off and run it back.' I'm glad he did that."
Lee, who also added two tackles to his pick-six, said he had seen the same play on film multiple times and had prepared himself for it.
“Just keying in on their splits. We saw a bunch of times in the first half, I think it was No. 10, and he was close to us, No. 2 receiver, I knew it was coming, made a play,” Lee said.
Lee’s play ended up being the deciding factor in the game, as the Huskies added a field goal with 7:46 left in the game to ultimately end the scoring.
His big play on Saturday earned him high praise from his head coach.
“Great play. He's one of the best players in the country. I love that kid,” Urban Meyer said. “And he's a high energy guy. He's got great, offensive skilled hands and really is a great player for us.”
While defensive touchdowns don’t happen often, Ohio State senior linebacker Joshua Perry said he is not at all surprised to see Lee make plays like the one he made against the Huskies.
“It's always fun to see, but it's almost never surprising when Darron makes a play like that,” Perry said. “You just know at any moment he is able to go off and that's what we really enjoy about him. He steadily chips away, chips away and then, boom there's a big one."
The “big one,” as Perry put it, was not by pure guess but by Lee’s knowledge of the game co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said.
“Players make plays and when they’re not just guess plays, they’re actually plays that they see and react to, that’s when you know you’ve got a chance. You can’t coach all that stuff,” Fickell said. “I could tell you maybe they were going to run that thing but the reality is I can’t go out there and make the play. A lot of guys couldn’t go out there and make the play but a guy that actually understands, sees it and can react and actually do it.”
While Lee played great, the Buckeye defense as a whole shined bright in an otherwise less than stellar performance for Ohio State.
Apple recorded an early interception, and the Buckeye defense tallied four sacks in the win.
Perry credited the defense's intensity and attitude on the field as part of the reason the Buckeyes have moved to 3-0 early on in the season.
“We knew that we were going to have probably a little more talent than we did last year, we knew with some of the personalities, the way guys play, we were going to have some intensity out there,” Perry said. “We just didn’t know how quickly it was going to come together and jell. We've done a great job so far, but we have a lot of work to do still."
Despite the elevated play on defense, the Buckeye offense struggled mightily, committing five turnovers and producing only 13 points. Ohio State’s 20 points for the game was the second lowest output for the Buckeyes in Meyer’s tenure in Columbus.
With the offense failing to put a lot of points on the board, Lee said it makes the defensive players be more alert as the game goes on.
“It makes us focus a little bit more. When the offense takes a minute to get their rhythm going, it’s like, we can’t have an off day. If we had an off day we would have lost that game,” Lee said. “It just makes us focus a little more. We get in that little defensive huddle and say, ‘It’s on defense to win the game. Have fun.’ The fun factor really takes care of a lot of stuff. When the offense takes a minute to get their rhythm going, we just go and do our job.”