We’ve seen this all before.
Last year, Jack Tuttle led a touchdown drive on the opening series against Ohio State. Hit as the pass left his hand and found those of Peyton Hendershot, Tuttle was led off the field with an injury. He was replaced by a combination of freshman then-quarterback Donaven McCulley and walk-on Grant Gremel.
Tuttle completed four of his seven attempts on that first drive for 41 yards and that sole touchdown pass. That was enough to end the game leading the Hoosiers in passing yards against the Buckeyes. Indiana’s starter last year, Michael Penix Jr., was out with an injury, Tuttle was the backup.
Fast forward to today, Nov. 5, 2022. Tuttle started in relief of Connor Bazelak, who was out with an unspecified injury (“dinged up”), Tom Allen said in his postgame press conference.
Following a hit with just under five minutes to go until halftime, Tuttle collapsed and remained on the turf as trainers and head coach Tom Allen ran out to check on him before leading him back to the locker room.
He’d already been sacked three times in the first quarter.
Yet another true freshman took his place in Brendan Sorsby. He immediately took two sacks on his first two plays. He was later replaced by Dexter Williams II. Three quarterbacks in one game. Indiana gained 120 yards of offense during the ensuing two quarters of the game, but you can’t blame the Hoosiers’ quarterbacks for the ineptitude when there’s a clear common denominator.
Indiana’s quarterbacks have suffered injuries that require them to miss time four times in the past two seasons. All four injuries can be attributed to hits from an opposing defense behind an offensive line incapable of proper pass protection.
Penix Jr. was tackled trying to extend a play.
Tuttle was hit as he threw.
Bazelak took too many hits.
Tuttle took another big hit.
The common denominator has been Indiana’s offensive line. Indiana fired former offensive line coach Darren Hiller after a loss to Michigan wherein the Wolverines piled on Bazelak for a whopping seven sacks.
Need more proof? Penix has excelled since transferring to Washington, leading the Huskies on a game-winning drive against Oregon State just last night.
His 3,232 passing yards rank first in the country. His 23 touchdown passes? Tied for fifth. Just five interceptions too. Washington’s sixth highest graded players against Oregon State per PFF? The offensive line.
Indiana has now been forced to throw two true freshmen into the fire against Big Ten East powers because the Hoosiers’ offensive line hasn’t been up to the task of protecting its starters.
It hasn’t been just the past two seasons either. Penix’s passing and the defense’s tendency to produce turnovers for good field position masked the offensive line’s breakdowns in protection in 2020.
This has been a known issue for two full seasons. It took until the sixth game of the third season for Indiana to move to start correcting it.
It’s too little too late.
The new age transfer portal allows struggling teams to reload on positions of need. It’s what allowed Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker to take the Spartans from 2-5 to 11-2 in a single season thanks to Ken Walker III.
You can find star to starting caliber defensive backs, wide receivers and even quarterbacks in the portal. Indiana struck some gold with Cam Camper. You cannot do the same with offensive linemen.
If an offensive lineman is leaving a program, it’s usually for the obvious reason of playing time. Those at the lower levels are also there for a reason and aren’t quite cut out for lining up against the monstrous defensive lines found around the Big Ten.
Programs have to find high schoolers that fit and can be developed in their system to sit until they’re ready. Indiana has failed at the latter, though they used to understand this very well. The Hoosiers used to send offensive linemen to the NFL on a regular basis. If anyone on the roster was drafted, you could safely bet it was a lineman.
Those days are over.
Seven quarterbacks have taken meaningful snaps behind this offensive line in the past 21 games, this one included. Two have won a game. When it wasn’t due to injury, it was a need for a spark that didn’t come.
Allen said Bazelak will likely return when Indiana travels to Columbus, Ohio, for a matchup with Ohio State.
But the line will be there too. So will the rest of the quarterbacks on the depth chart.
As the season grows dimmer with each passing game, the last one out has to get the lights.