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Indiana’s offense continues to take hits it can’t afford in loss to Ohio State

Jack Tuttle got the throw off just in time, before he was swallowed in a mosh of white jerseys and silver helmets. The ball spun to Peyton Hendershot, IU’s tight end, who was camped in the back of the endzone for a touchdown.

It capped off a 15-play, 75-yard opening offensive drive, one of the best collections of plays IU had put together in the past couple of games. There was a good run-pass balance. IU converted on three third downs. There was some creativity with quarterback sneaks and an attempted flea-flicker. Most importantly, Indiana was able to punch in a touchdown in the red zone, something the team has lacked this season.

On the final play of the drive, however, two Ohio State defenders sandwiched Tuttle. As Hendershot celebrated, Tuttle remained on the turf. He sat there for a few minutes. Finally, he slowly walked off the field under his own power. He only returned for two plays the remainder of the game. Any momentum from that first drive was erased.

The result was an embarrassing 54-7 loss to Ohio State, where fans headed to the exits before halftime due to the rain but also the lopsided score. Indiana’s defense, which has kept IU in games all season, crumbled as quarterback and Heisman candidate C.J. Stroud repeatedly diced the Hoosiers.

A season that once had high expectations for Indiana has snowballed out of hand. The Hoosiers have lost three consecutive games and are now 2-5. They will need to win four of their last five games just to reach bowl eligibility, a possibility that is quickly seemingly unlikely.

Indiana’s offensive has largely been the bane of its season. The Hoosiers entered Saturday ranked 108th in total offense. After Saturday, they’ve scored two touchdowns in four Big Ten contests. The woes have gone deep beyond the quarterback position, with poor offensive line play, lack of playmaking and questionable play-calling all contributing to the inconsistencies. 

Given the offense’s unreliability, the injury to Tuttle on Saturday was yet another punch to the offense that Indiana couldn’t afford. The Hoosiers were forced to put in two quarterbacks — true freshman Donaven McCulley and redshirt sophomore Grant Gremel  — who combined for two appearances in their careers entering Saturday.

“It put us in a situation we didn’t want to be in,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said.

It continued the carousel that has been Indiana’s quarterback position this season. Michael Penix Jr., who started the season under center after returning from a torn ACL, never looked like himself. Then against Penn State, Penix Jr. suffered an AC separation in his throwing shoulder and hasn’t been back since.

That prompted Tuttle, who’s been around the college game for four seasons, but never been an outright starter, to be called into action. His first start of the season last week against Michigan State concluded with just 15 points scored, two interceptions and a fumble, largely a continuation of the giveaways and red zone struggles of Penix Jr. through the first five games. 

After Tuttle’s injury on Saturday, McCulley, who made his first appearance last week, was thrown into the game. He arrived on campus this summer and has only been in IU’s system for a few months. Saturday was undoubtedly a daunting task for the young quarterback — against the Buckeyes and under the lights  — and one that got the most of him. His first drive ended in a three and out, including a fumble from running back Stephen Carr, which the Hoosiers ultimately recovered.

“He just hasn’t had enough reps, to be honest with you,” Allen said of McCulley.

The following drive, Indiana elected to put in Gremel. On his first drive, he fumbled but was able to recover it. It concluded in four plays and led to a bobbled punt that led to a safety for the Buckeyes. 

“(Gremel playing) was never a thought going into the season,” Allen said.

Gremel and McCulley continued to switch off for the remainder of the quarter, but there was no offensive rhythm whatsoever and given the experience and circumstances, there was little reason to expect significant movement down the field.

The yardage in final four drives of the first half, not including a kneel, are as follows: -6, -8, -9 and 8. The Hoosiers finished the half with 54 total yards. They totaled -21 yards after that first drive. At that point, the game was all but over, with Ohio State holding a 37-point lead at the break.

McCulley was in for a majority of the second half, but was still unable to create a spark, finishing the game 1-for-6 for 30 yards. Gremel was 3-for-4 for nine yards. Besides those two, Stephen Carr was bottled up for 13 rushing yards on 10 carries. Hendershot was the only IU receiver to haul in more than one catch. The offensive line gave up five sacks.

After the game, Allen said that Tuttle’s X-rays came back negative, but he was in significant pain and will undergo MRIs. His status moving forward is uncertain.

The reins could be in the hands of McCulley and Gremel — two unproven quarterbacks. It will likely force Indiana to simplify the offense even more. And for an offense that hasn’t been able to make big plays, the ability to execute the simple ones will now become more uncertain.

“It’s a battle,” Allen said of the injuries to his quarterbacks. “It’s not something we expected for sure.”

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