Freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley rolled out to his right, looking to deliver a deep ball. His first and second options were both covered down the field, but his best option stood nine yards past the line of scrimmage.
McCulley reset his feet and connected with the wide-open Peyton Hendershot, who turned on the jets and dived for the pylon. Hendershot would come up a yard short, but set Indiana up for its first touchdown of the afternoon.
And with this reception and run after the catch, Hendershot became Indiana’s all-time leader in receiving yards among tight ends with 1,383, passing Ted Bolser’s mark set from 2010 to 2013. Hendershot’s 125 receptions are also a program high, which he set on Oct. 23 against Ohio State.
Hendershot said he texted offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan after the Ohio State game, thanking Sheridan for the opportunities he provides Hendershot in Indiana’s offense. With five seasons of college football experience, Hendershot said he stresses making the most of every opportunity to Indiana’s younger tight ends.
“You believe it and you envision it in your mind,” Hendershot said. “But when it finally starts to come to fruition, it’s eye-opening.”
Despite a 38-35 loss on Saturday at Maryland, Hendershot had a monster day in McCulley’s first collegiate start. McCulley found his reliable target early and often, leading to six catches, 106 yards and two touchdowns — all team-high numbers — for Hendershot. The redshirt senior tight end’s 14 career touchdowns are also nearing an Indiana record, trailing Bolser by one score.
“This is a Big Ten program and my name is going to be on there forever,” Hendershot said. “It’s very fulfilling. I’m very happy, very blessed and I would choose to become an Indiana Hoosier every single time.”
Going into the game, Hendershot said Indiana focused on making McCulley as comfortable as possible. The Hoosiers trailed Maryland 35-20 with just under 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter on Saturday, but it was the McCulley-to-Hendershot connection that ignited an Indiana comeback.
On second down from the Maryland 18-yard line, McCulley floated a pass to the corner of the end zone. Hendershot broke past the secondary, slid towards the corner and hung on for the touchdown to make it a one-possession game.
“[McCulley] is just a ball player,” Hendershot said. “He makes plays and can scramble. I trust him. I tell him everyday, ‘Trust in yourself, we all trust in you and believe in you.’”
After allowing a field goal, Indiana regained possession with 1:20 left, trailing by 10 points. McCulley looked for Hendershot, but was hit after the pass, resulting in a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty. McCulley found Ty Fryfogle for a 52-yard gain on the next play, and the Hoosiers threatened a comeback yet again.
Hendershot caught McCulley’s pass on a 5-yard out route, but still had a defender to beat. Hendershot lowered his shoulder, powered through a Maryland defender and lunged forward for his second touchdown of the game.
Indiana ultimately came up short after failing to recover an onside kick, and fell to 2-6 on the season. The Hoosiers have come up well short of expectations in 2021, but McCulley and Hendershot’s quick-developing chemistry on Saturday provided a bright spot moving forward.
“We didn’t lay down,” Hendershot said. “We came back and fought.”
Before the Maryland game, Indiana tight ends coach Kevin Wright said that Hendershot has uplifted his game by becoming a dangerous runner after the catch. This has allowed Indiana to use Hendershot not only in the intermediate passing game, but through screens and deep passes down the middle.
Indiana’s 2021 campaign has quickly turned into a massive disappointment due to injuries, turnovers and a difficult schedule, but McCulley showed hints of promise for the future. The freshman completed 14 of 25 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns and claimed Hendershot as his new favorite target moving forward.
“Especially after last year,” Hendershot said. “Just coming back and proving that I’m that type of player and that no matter what defense I play against I can get open.”