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Maryland roundtable preview: How much do you trust Donaven McCulley under center?

Indiana lost more than just another game last Saturday in its 54-7 loss to Ohio State in the rain. Jack Tuttle went down with a foot injury and is week-to-week moving forward, leaving freshman Donaven McCulley and walk-on Grant Gremel as Indiana’s top quarterback options.

No one expected Indiana to start the season with a 2-5 record, but that’s the reality as the Hoosiers head to Maryland for a noon matchup on Saturday. Indiana will now need to win four of its next five games to become bowl eligible. The Hoosier Network’s football crew Jack Ankony, Tyler Tachman and William McDermott answered the biggest questions for Indiana in this week’s roundtable preview.

All signs point towards Donaven McCulley earning his first collegiate start on Saturday. How much do you trust the true freshman under center?

Jack: McCulley was put in a very difficult position last Saturday in the rain against Ohio State. There were times when he looked like a freshman and really struggled, but there were also intriguing signs of potential. At this point, I trust McCulley’s ability to move around in the pocket and scramble for big gains, but his ability to read the defense is a big question mark. He proved he has a strong arm against Ohio State, and a dry environment at Maryland could really help. 

Tyler: It's such a tough situation for a freshman quarterback because he just arrived on campus in the fall and doesn’t have the sheer volume of reps that you’d like him to have at this point. McCulley has so many promising physical attributes, but it’s just a lot to ask of him when he’s thrown into the fire amid a season that’s gone awry. I wouldn’t be surprised to see redshirt sophomore Grant Gremel get time on the field too, given he’s been in Indiana’s system much longer than McCulley.

William: I think it’s really important to have a mobile quarterback behind this offensive line. If McCulley can take care of the ball and not gift the Terps opportunities he will be just fine. 

Indiana had by far its worst defensive performance last week against Ohio State, but things get a bit easier against Maryland. How can Indiana’s defense return to dominant form?

Tyler: The obvious answer: interceptions and fumbles. Indiana puts so much emphasis on its ability to create takeaways and it's what made the defense special last season. For a majority of this season, though, Indiana’s defense hasn’t forced turnovers at the rate it hoped. After getting back closer to its identity against Michigan State, the Hoosiers were unable to force any turnovers against Ohio State. Indiana can alleviate more pressure off the offense against Maryland if they can hand the ball to them multiple times. 

William: The IU secondary just got absolutely torched by Ohio State’s NFL talent. There’s gonna be a huge talent drop off between last week and this week. Tyler is right. Turnovers are the key. The team who led the Big Ten in interceptions last year has really struggled this season. The defense needs to help the offense as much as possible. 

Jack: I think we will look back at Indiana’s defensive performance against Ohio State as an anomaly. The Hoosiers were without Tiawan Mullen and Reese Taylor against three of the best receivers in all of college football, which made things really difficult for the rest of the defense. I think we will see a much stronger defensive performance against Maryland, especially if Mullen and Taylor are able to return. 

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the Big Ten. What can Indiana do to stop him?

William: Taulia Tagovailoa has struggled the past few weeks after a quick start and seems to really struggle with decision making under pressure. That’s where the turnovers come from. 

Jack: Whenever a team faces a mobile quarterback, a big emphasis is placed on the edges of the defense. For Indiana, that means defensive ends Ryder Anderson as well as Alfred Bryant and Jaren Handy at Indiana’s bull position. They will need to generate constant pressure off the edges and not allow Tagovailoa to turn the corner off tackle. 

Tyler: Indiana had one of its worst tackling performances against Ohio State. That needs to be much improved against a mobile quarterback such as Taulia Tagovailoa. Also, the defense needs to play a full game. Against Cincinnati, Indiana contained Desmond Ridder for one half, but following the ejection of Micah McFadden, Ridder started getting into rhythm. The Hoosiers will surely face adversity against Maryland, and can’t fold when that happens. 

Indiana’s offense ranks in the bottom 25 of most offensive categories and is desperate for someone to step up. Which offensive player could be in line for a big game against Maryland?

Jack: He set the all-time record for receptions by a tight end last week, so I’ll go with Peyton Hendershot. I don’t anticipate Indiana asking McCulley to try to push the ball downfield too much because of his inexperience, which means it could be a big day for checkdowns to Hendershot for quick and easy gains. 

Tyler: It needs to be Stephen Carr, especially given there will be an unproven quarterback under center. If I’m Maryland, I’d key on the run all day and force Indiana to throw it deep, something that the Hoosiers have lacked all season. If Carr can get things going, though, it will take a huge amount of pressure off whoever’s at quarterback and open up some potential downfield shots and play action opportunities. 

William: Ty Fryfogle. With a freshman quarterback potentially getting his first start, his former Big Ten receiver of the year needs to help him out and be a security blanket. Every young quarterback, even in the NFL, needs to find a reliable target and connection. 

Maryland is favored by 5.5 points over Indiana, and the Hoosiers are 1-6 against the spread this season. The final score of Saturday’s game will be __ ?

Tyler: Maryland 17, Indiana 10. I just don’t trust Indiana’s offense enough to give IU the benefit of the doubt. I’m confident that the defense will be able to bounce back from its underwhelming performance against Ohio State, but I’m not sure that Indiana’s offense will be able to put up enough points yet again.

William: Indiana 17, Maryland 13. I think IU’s defense responds well and causes some turnovers. As for the offense, I don't think McCulley absolutely lights it up but he does enough and shows his athleticism on the perimeter with scrambles and rushing.

Jack: Maryland 20, Indiana 16. Red-zone struggles have been a major theme for Indiana this season, and I think they’ll continue on Saturday. Expect a lot of field goals from Charles Campbell and stingy defense from Indiana, but I think the offense comes up one score short yet again.

A win over Maryland would mean ___?

William: Hope. Indiana has had one of the toughest schedules in the country so far. And while they slow down to end the season, a Big Ten win is desperately needed. 

Jack: McCulley is a quick learner and provides hope for Indiana’s future. I still think Indiana will come up short in terms of becoming bowl-eligible, so we’re getting close to the point in the season where you identify contributors for next year’s team. A strong performance and a road win in McCulley’s first collegiate start would certainly put him in that group. 

Tyler: A win keeps any hopes of bowl eligibility alive. It would also put the Hoosiers in a position to gain a semblance of momentum into the latter half of the schedule. If Indiana has a chance of beating Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue, Saturday will be a good indication of where the Hoosiers stand.

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