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Indiana football loses to Illinois: Three things we learned

Goodbye, everybody

Syndication: The Herald-Times Rich Janzaruk / Herald-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

After a somewhat surprising win last week against an understaffed Wisconsin team, Indiana headed to Champaign with its bowl hopes alive. A win against Illinois would have had the Hoosiers at four wins before matchups with Michigan State and Purdue teams that have failed to impress this year.

Like Wisconsin last week, Illinois also entered this game shorthanded. Starting quarterback Luke Altmyer was out with an injury, leaving John Paddock - a Ball State transfer - as the only thing between Indiana and bowl eligibility.

With the season on the line, the offense came to play. Behind a high-powered passing attack, Indiana jumped out to a 27-12 lead in the first half. The defense was showing some cracks, but had a few red zone stops to give Indiana a glimmer of hope on the road today.

And then the defense broke. It wasn’t enough to discourage the offense, who fought back enough to force overtime, but it was enough to cost Indiana the game and its hopes at bowl eligibility this year.

Whatever momentum the Hoosiers had after spirited efforts against Wisconsin and Penn State is now gone. Indiana will have to find some other motivation besides a chance at the postseason to eke out its last two games of the season.

Here’s three things we learned:

Donaven McCulley

Indiana’s quarterback-turned-wide receiver was possibly the lone bright spot on one of the darker days in recent memory for the Hoosiers.

McCulley’s hot streak arguably started last week with his one-handed grab against the Badgers. Since then, he’s looked like one of the best receivers in the Big Ten.

In the first half alone, McCulley had seven catches for over 100 yards and two touchdowns. He ended the game with 11 catches, 137 yards, and the pair of scores for what was Indiana’s best individual performance on the day.

I was once a skeptic as to McCulley’s potential at his new position, but he has proven himself and then some. Over the last two weeks, he’s demonstrated an ability to go up and win jump balls, beat guys at the line of scrimmage, and help quarterbacks with back shoulder catches along the sideline.

If he wasn’t before, McCulley is now Indiana’s top receiver threat, capable of hauling in long balls for huge chunks and quick slants in short yardage situations. He’s clearly an elite athlete that most teams will not have an answer for going forward.

Unfortunately for Indiana (and Donaven), he plays for Indiana. His explosive first half was followed by fewer targets in the second half. Illinois made adjustments to make sure he wasn’t lost in coverage while Indiana made 0 adjustments to get him open in the second half.

The Defense

John Paddock, who played the first four years of his career at Ball State before accepting a backup role at Illinois, put up the best passing performance of any quarterback in the Tom Allen era. This includes his time as a coordinator under Kevin Wilson in 2016.

Please reread the above paragraph. The season was on the line and a backup from the MAC shredded a Tom Allen defense for more than 500 yards and four touchdowns.

This isn’t the first time the defense has looked suspect this season. Akron, a team that’s now 2-8 in the MAC, took Indiana to four overtimes behind a dual-threat quarterback that had the Hoosiers on their heels for most of the game.

There are no excuses for this level of play. The secondary features a lot of new players, but in year seven with a head coach, there’s nobody else to blame for the high turnover at one of the positions that matters most for the team’s defensive philosophy.

What if?

What if Indiana had a competent coaching staff? The talent is clearly there to compete in the Big Ten, and the team has been able to overcome their deficiencies on three occasions now.

Every time this group has been able to get some momentum, be it for a few games in the course of the season or a few drives in the course of a game, this staff has found ways to waste it.

I’ve said it enough times that it feels useless to type again, but there are simply too many mistakes between penalties, missed assignments, and poor game management for this team to ever get off the ground.

The call that stands out the most on a day in which there were a plethora of bad decisions was the last punt in the first half. Rather than run the clock out entirely, Indiana punted with 15 seconds on the play clock to set up an Illinois touchdown that cut the Hoosiers’ lead to one point heading into halftime.

Had Indiana even been able to keep Illinois to a field goal on that drive, Sorsby’s late-game heroics may have been enough to lift the Hoosiers to a second straight late game upset of the Illini.

Instead, this game will go down as another “what if” in a season full of them. What if things were different?