I’ve been struggling basically since the first half of Saturday’s 54-7 loss to Ohio State to decide how or what to write about that game. Even with less talented teams, Indiana had somehow found a way to often keep it close with the Buckeyes for at least three quarters of the game, and winning last week would have been a total reset on what had been a frustrating season so far. Aside from wanting to cast off that last Aflac trivia question (I KNOW WE HAVEN’T BEATEN OHIO STATE SINCE 1988, THANK YOU, INSURANCE GOOSE), I just wanted to believe in the team we were promised before this season.
In case you’ve forgotten, Indiana started the season ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1969, two seasons after they played in the Rose Bowl. That in and of itself was exciting, but I had talked myself into thinking Indiana was underrated. The Hoosiers only lost one regular season game last year, and it was to an eventual College Football Playoff team. Ten players were named to preseason watch lists and it looked like Indiana may finally be on the right side of the talent imbalance we hear about whenever Ohio State runs up the score late in the game.
Indiana’s bowl hopes are still alive, but they’ll require winning four of the last five games, likely with true freshman Donaven McCulley starting at quarterback (if Tom Allen’s “week-to-week” designation for Jack Tuttle means anything). I no longer feel confident about the Maryland game and I doubt whether I’ll feel great about any game left on the schedule. This realization has prompted some reflection for me, as I’ve had to try to decide if I was writing like too much of a homer who had gotten his hopes up, or whether this was just an unlucky, no-good year. Before we enter this crucial stretch of the 2021 campaign, I figured I’d try to work out what our expectations as fans should be going forward.
The Hoosiers have been unlucky this year
Of the 10 players who earned preseason recognition, three of them have been inactive due to injuries during the recent losing streak. D.J. Matthews, Indiana’s nominee for the Paul Hornung Award, is done for the year after a knee injury against Western Kentucky, while Michael Penix and Tiawan Mullen have each been listed as week-to-week. For a team with a level of ambition and expectations that are unparalleled in the last 50 years, losing that kind of leadership on the field has been disastrous. Even when he was healthy, Penix never really seemed himself this year. He looked reluctant in the pocket and never seemed to hit his top speed when he had to scramble. Given his injury history, it’s completely understandable that he’d play a little more cautiously than he did in past season. At the same time, it feels like a colossal injustice that one of the spiritual leaders behind IU’s resurgence as a football team hasn’t had good injury luck.
Outside of injuries, Indiana has lost to two ranked opponents in games that were competitive. Micah McFadden’s ejection in the first half of the Cincinnati game, one of those two losses, epitomizes the kind of bad breaks the Hoosiers have had in big moments this season. That it was called against Indiana in that moment on that stage is unlucky. Andy made a compelling case that Indiana would have won that game had McFadden stayed in the game, and who knows what the season would have looked like if the Hoosiers had a top-10 win under their belt in September
Not everything can be excused by bad luck
Looking back at Mike Miller’s position preview for the offensive line reveals that line play was one of the biggest question marks entering the season and that Darren Hiller’s groups have been suspect for basically his entire tenure as offensive line coach. There was some optimism, especially since Indiana was returning four starters, but even Hiller acknowledged that the group would need to improve from last year. The line has yet to show any such improvement.
And the group has not lost anyone to major injuries, unlike the receiver or defensive back position groups. In fact, bad offensive line play is one of the main reasons Tom Allen believes Indiana has had injury problems at quarterback this year, as he said in this week’s press conference.
Injuries do not excuse the offensive play-calling either. Part of the impetus for writing this blog was the fact that I am running out of ways to call Indiana’s offense bad and needed a new angle from which to agonize over this season. Starting every drive with an inside handoff, drawing up routes on 3rd-and-long that don’t cross the first-down marker, running the wildcat in the lord’s year two-thousand and twenty-one, and the worst shuttle pass I’ve ever seen – Nick Sheridan has done a little bit of everything this season. The relatively successful opening drives, including last weekend against Ohio State, prove that this team is capable of scoring. The Hoosiers just do not score often.
When Tuttle went down with an injury last week, my first thought was that these injuries could let Sheridan and Hiller off the hook for what’s been an abysmal showing this year. Allen cannot let that happen. The offense was not performing well with a healthy Penix or a healthy Tuttle, and unless McCulley is the next Lamar Jackson as a runner, I doubt it turns around.
Expectations going forward
McCulley will be good in time, and I hope to God that this season doesn’t push him to the transfer portal. That said, he is 18 years old and was playing high school football at this time last year. I don’t know that it’s fair to expect him, or whichever NCAA Football Create-A-Player Tom Allen plugs in, to turn this season around or save Indiana’s bowl hopes. If Tuttle is healthy, I think his experience and the remaining healthy talent on the roster is just enough to rack up those remaining four wins, especially since Indiana i splaying the weaker part of its schedule from here on out. Personally, I will be tuning in Saturday in hopes of catching another unbelievable Micah McFadden performance and trying not to be too sad that this is what the 2021 season has come to.