COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Linebacker Darron Lee knew the Ohio State offense was struggling and so he took matters into his own hands.
Lee returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to spark the top-ranked Buckeyes to a 20-13 win over Northern Illinois on Saturday in Ohio Stadium.
"I knew we needed something," Lee said. "I just tried to make something happen."
For the second straight game, the Ohio State defense came to the rescue. Safety Vonn Bell returned a fumble for a score against Hawaii to break open a close game during a 38-0 win on Sept. 12.
"Our defense was amazing. They saved us," Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker said.
Lee's score came on the first play after linebacker Sean Folliard got the Huskies' third interception of the game. Lee jumped in front of tight end Desroy Maxwell on the pass by quarterback Drew Hare to put Ohio State ahead 20-10.
The interception was the result of recognizing a play that had been run earlier.
"He called it out on the sideline a little bit," Ohio State linebacker coach Luke Fickell said. "He said, 'I'm picking one of those things off if they run that again.'
I said, 'Just do your job. Don't try to be a hero.' It was great anticipation. It wasn't a guess."
Northern Illinois (2-1), a five-touchdown underdog, pulled to within 20-13 when Christian Hagan kicked a 31-yard field goal with 7:46 left in the game.
The Huskies had a chance to tie when linebacker Bobby Jones recovered a fumble by running back Curtis Samuel at the Northern Illinois 29 with 4:05 remaining, but the Huskies could not get a first down and punted.
Northern Illinois forced an Ohio State punt and got the back with 94 seconds left and 80 yards to go for a touchdown, but Hare threw four incomplete passes.
"The bottom line is they made more plays than we did at critical times," Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said.
Ohio State kicker Jack Willoughby had made a 24-yard field goal with 8:27 left in the third quarter for a 13-10 lead, the Buckeyes' first of the game.
Ohio State (3-0) survived to win its 16th straight game.
"That's as good of a football team as we'll play," Hare said. "To have that chance at the end, we just didn't make plays when we needed to and they did."
Northern Illinois shocked Ohio State with a 10-10 halftime tie by taking advantage of two Cardale Jones interceptions, both by cornerback Shawun Lurry.
Jones was replaced by J.T. Barrett after the second one led to a Hagan 38-yard field goal with 12:20 left before the half and a 10-3 lead for the Huskies.
Barrett led Ohio State to the tying score on his second series, completing a four-play, 44-yard drive with a toss into the left corner of the end zone to wide receiver Michael Thomas with 8:21 to go in the quarter.
Northern Illinois only had 92 total yards in the first half but did need to go far for its two scores.
After Lurry's first pick, the Huskies went 22 yards to go ahead 7-0 less than four minutes into the game when Aregeros Turner ran in from 5 yards.
The Buckeyes made it 7-3 on a Willoughby 31-yard field goal with 6:21 left in the first half.
The drive that led to Hagan's first field goal started at the Ohio State 29.
"It's discombobulated right now," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of the Buckeyes' offense.
Neither heralded Ohio State quarterback stood out. Jones was 4 of 9 for 36 yards. Barrett completed 11 of 19 passes for 97 yards.
Asked who the starting quarterback is going forward, Meyer said, "I don't know right now."
Hare, who passed for more than 300 yards in each of the first two games, was 14 of 31 for 80 yards and was sacked four times.
It was the second straight game that Ohio State has held the opponent to less than 100 yards passing.
"They're a solid defense," Hare said. "They've got athletes everywhere and their front seven is probably as good as anybody's in the nation. Like I said, they made plays."
NOTES: Ohio State CB Damon Webb was suspended before the game for violating athletics department policy. ... The previous meeting between the schools was in 2006 when Ohio State was also No. 1. The Buckeyes won 35-12. ... Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was formally inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame this weekend. Tressel led the Buckeyes to the 2002 BCS national championship and title games in the 2006 and '07 seasons. He was forced out in 2011 because of NCAA violations. Tressel is also part of this year's College Football Hall of Fame class.