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Indiana's season continues to go off the rails in loss to Maryland

As players converged to shake hands and exchange pleasantries at Capital One Field in College Park, Maryland, a certain fitting song blared across the loudspeakers.

It was a classic: “Bye Bye Bye” by NSYNC.

Indiana had just lost its fourth consecutive game. This time it was to Maryland, 38-35. The Hoosiers now have a 2-6 record. They have still not beaten a power-five opponent this season. They need to win their final four games to be eligible for a bowl game.

Indiana wide receiver Jacolby Hewitt battles for position against Maryland on Oct. 30, 2021. (Bailey Wright/HN)

The loss wasn't because of a lack of opportunities. Midway through the third quarter, Stephen Carr burst through the line for a 66-yard touchdown scamper. Indiana had turned what was a 14-point deficit into a three-point lead and seemingly taken the momentum. At that point, it was Indiana’s game to lose.

From there, though, it took a turn. Maryland scored 13 unanswered points. Indiana’s secondary was gashed by Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who tossed a game-high 419 yards. A last-chance onside kick from Indiana was recovered by Maryland.

Then, the song played.

"Bye bye bye."

Much like the tune, Indiana’s bowl hopes, and chance to revive its season, went “bye.”

“Just really disappointed in our defense,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “Didn’t play well enough. Too many explosive plays in the throwing game.”

As it has gone for the entirety of the season, the chances were there for Indiana. The Hoosiers led at halftime against top-10 opponents Cincinnati and Michigan State earlier this year. Both, however, ended in the loss column. It was the same on Saturday, where the Hoosiers swung the energy of the game after a putrid start. They weren't, however, unable to sustain their momentum and capitalize on chances.

The prevailing excuse for Indiana’s poor record this season was that five of its first seven opponents are currently, or were previously, ranked in the top-10. On Saturday, though, that was not the case. Maryland entered the day with a mediocre 4-3 record, having lost its previous three games. Indiana’s loss Saturday proved that, right now, it's not even worthy of being labeled a middling Big Ten team this season, instead continuing to sink to the bottom of the conference at 0-4.

That record is largely due to the fact that Indiana’s offense and defense have yet to put together a cohesive performance this season against a team not named Idaho. Indiana’s defense has given itself a chance to win almost every game this season, including Michigan State, Cincinnati and kept them somewhat close in the first half against Penn State.

Charles Campbell walks the sideline during IU's loss to Maryland on Oct. 30, 2021. (Bailey Wright/HN)

The offense, on the other hand, had been unreliable. IU scored just two touchdowns in its first four conference games. The offense line’s production and playcalling have been under heavy scrutiny. Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle, Indiana’s top two quarterbacks, both went down with injuries. Against Ohio State, freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley and redshirt sophomore Grant Gremel 一 who combined for two career appearances entering the game 一 were thrown into action.

But on Saturday, the script was flipped. Indiana’s defense was the letdown. The secondary was gashed time and time again, allowing seven pass plays for more than 20 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. 

It didn’t help that Indiana has a depleted secondary. Starting cornerback Reese Taylor missed his third consecutive game. Tiawan Mullen played the first half, his first action in three games, but was back on the sideline in the second half. Earlier this season, Chris Keys tore his ACL and Larry Tracy entered the transfer portal.

There was also the fact that Indiana wasn't able to create any takeaways, an aspect of the game that is part of its DNA. Despite allowing a decent amount of yardage last season, what made Indiana's defense so potent was that it led the nation in takeaways. This season, however, they aren’t forcing turnovers at close to the same rate. Over the past two games, Indiana has created zero takeaways.

“I think that is the biggest difference between last year and this year,” Allen said. "Because there are a lot of similarities and things. Just not getting those picks and fumbles.”

In contrast to the trend of the season, Indiana’s offense did its job. Carr had 136 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Peyton Hendershot had six catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns. McCulley, in his first career start, improved as the game went on, finishing 14-of-25 for 242 yards and two touchdowns.

"Donaven is a good quarterback,” Allen said. “He just needs to play. Everything I’ve said all along he’s got real talent. But he’s young. He’s really, really young.”

With the chance of making a bowl seeming increasingly unlikely, the question becomes if Indiana can gain some momentum into next season. Entering this year, after a historic run, Indiana had a golden opportunity to continue to build momentum and excitement around the team in one of the most anticipated seasons in program history.

Instead, the Hoosiers have fumbled chance after chance. It seems that something larger is at stake the rest of the season. If the Hoosiers only muster one or fewer wins, the energy surrounding the program will continue to take a hit. Unlike another team on campus, IU football doesn’t have a history to fall back on.

Just a few months ago, this seemed like a program that was unstoppable. Now, there is much more unknown.

“We are where we are,” Allen said. “We’re just going to continue to keep battling, keep fighting. And continue to do everything we can every single week to win football games.”

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