Indiana 38-35 loss to Maryland was the first loss to an unranked opponent for the Hoosiers this year. Maryland had lost three straight games coming in, while Indiana had yet to win a game in the conference, making it something of a must-win game for both teams. The loss means that Indiana will need to win out to be bowl eligible, an unlikely feat with Michigan still on the schedule. That said, there were some positives in the game, especially at the quarterback position. Here’s what we learned about the team in that loss.
This season will officially be a step backward
Expectations for Indiana’s season were most definitely informed by Indiana’s unexpected 2020 success, but it’s important to note that the Hoosiers had been steadily trending upwards since even before Tom Allen took over. Kevin Wilson led Indiana to the Pinstripe Bowl in 2015 and most of the way to 2016’s Foster Farms Bowl appearance, which Tom Allen coached after Wilson’s unceremonious departure at the end of the 2016 season. During his first two seasons as head coach, Allen fell one win short of bowl eligibility, which can probably be attributed to his lack of head coaching experience and possibly the fact that he was still trying to serve as defensive coordinator during those seasons. By 2019, he had gotten the program back on track and has since taken Indiana to the 2020 Gator Bowl and 2021 Outback Bowl.
Indiana has not experienced this level of sustained success since Bill Mallory led the team to five bowl games between 1987-1993. Mallory was also the last Indiana coach to lead them to victory in a bowl game. Though Allen has time to right the ship next year and prolong what’s been a historic era for the program, this is the first time one of his teams has severely underperformed compared to preseason expectations.
Donaven McCulley will be good
Until this game, we had only seen very brief glimpses of Donaven McCulley this season. For the most part, he looked like somebody who would benefit from a redshirt year, which was Tom Allen’s plan for the true freshman quarterback until Michael Penix went down with an injury. His throws looked rushed and were usually way off the mark, and when he scrambled, you could very obviously tell that he was not used to playing against a full team of men who are at least as fast and strong as he is. The thought of him playing for an entire game was not very encouraging.
His game is certainly still unpolished, but McCulley proved that he is worth every bit of his four-star ranking. He completed 14 of his 25 passes on Saturday for 242 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 9.7 yards per completion. Considering his inaccuracy earlier in the year and Nick Sheridan’s general tendency to call more conservative plays, the fact that McCulley was able to make important, down-field passes is maybe the most encouraging sign for his career so far.
Luck is still not on Indiana’s side
After allowing two touchdowns and a missed field goal on Maryland’s first three drives, Indiana finally forced Maryland to punt with 12:30 left in the second quarter. Indiana blocked the punt and recovered the fumble, giving the offense the best field position of the day at Maryland’s 13 yard line. The four plays that followed are a perfect encapsulation of Indiana’s season so far. McCulley lost eight yards on a sack on the first play, before gaining one back on the ground the following play. That lone rushing yard was erased by a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Matthew Bedford, who was simply trying to get Maryland players off of his quarterback. A horrible call, by any standard. McCulley found Fryfogle for 11 yards on 3rd and 32, setting up a 42-yard field goal for Charles Campbell, who had only missed three field goals in his career to that point. Campbell missed, but did redeem himself with a 55 yarder later.
Add in an uncharacteristically bad defensive performance during the best offensive performance of the year so far, and it’s clear that it just was not meant to be Indiana’s day. The defensive pass interference calls that have bailed out many bad Nick Sheridan drives before weren’t called last weekend, and it wasn’t for the lack of opportunity. Meanwhile, Indiana committed 65 yards worth of penalties on their own. The margin for error was non-existent before the game and the Hoosiers did not get the execution and luck they’d need to pull this one out.