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Indiana's lost season cemented as McCulley battles growing pains, flashes potential

ANN ARBOR — Tom Allen’s arm pointed to the sky, dipped towards the ground, then inched higher. 

It was his way of describing the valleys of development present in freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley — natural talent and glimpses of star potential, coupled with mistakes that can swing the results of a game. It depicted the insurmountable challenge of starting a true freshman quarterback in front of 109,890 opposing fans and the bottom line that Indiana left Michigan Stadium with a 2-7 record. 

And it displayed what always emits from Allen — even in through a season filled with loss: faith for the future. 

“[McCulley] made some plays you smile at and plays you shake your head at,” Allen said. 

The most common phrase during Allen’s postgame press conference was, “He’s a young quarterback.” For what’s left in a 2021 season that has spiraled into disaster, it’s the reality Allen and the Hoosiers face. 

Indiana lost its fifth consecutive game on Saturday night, a 29-7 beatdown against No. 7 Michigan that officially ended any glimmer of hope Allen and the Hoosiers had of reaching a third-straight bowl game. 

Offensive ineptitude was again a theme of Indiana’s loss, seen through just 195 total yards of offense. The story of Indiana football in 2021 has been untimely turnovers and poor red-zone efficiency on both sides, and it's a story that doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon. 

With 13 minutes left in the first half, McCulley didn’t feel the pressure from his blind side.

Eyeing a third-and-nine conversion, McCulley wound up, but Michigan linebacker David Ojabo snuck his hand through and swatted the ball to the ground. The Wolverines recovered on the Indiana 24-yard line, and just four plays later, Michigan running back Hassan Haskins walked into the end zone to claim a 10-0 lead. 

Naturally — and true of most true freshmen quarterbacks under center — McCulley was forced to work through growing pains in front of a sellout crowd at The Big House in his second career start. He finished the night completing 10 of 24 passes for 88 yards, no touchdowns and a fumble.

But in a game that cemented a lost season for Indiana, McCulley provided a few flashes that felt like a look into his future form. With nine minutes left in the second quarter, two Michigan edge rushers pinched the pocket, but McCulley used his quick feet to split the defense. McCulley bounced off a hit at the 15-yard line and ran over a defender, flipping to the Michigan 2-yard line to convert on third down. 

McCulley’s longest rush of the game set up Chris Childers for his first career touchdown and brought the Hoosiers within three points. It was the biggest offensive play of the night for Indiana and one to file into McCulley’s currently shallow but still eye-opening highlight reel.

The scamper capped off a 10-play, 75-yard drive that balanced the ground and aerial attack well for the only time on Saturday night. But just two plays later, Haskins broke into the open field for a 62-yard gain. Indiana had no answer for Haskins all night, as he finished with 168 yards and a touchdown.

Michigan put an end to any momentum McCulley and the Hoosiers were building and scored two plays later with a 12-yard Luke Schoonmaker touchdown reception to take a 17-7 lead. It was another sequence displaying Indiana’s inability to complement a well-oiled offensive drive with a crucial defensive stop, or vice versa. 

With this loss, Indiana remains one of three Power Five schools — joining only Vanderbilt and Kansas — without a win over a Power Five school.

“Furthest thing anybody thought would happen this year,” Allen said. 

He’s not wrong. Indiana entered the season returning the majority of starters on both sides of the ball from a team that finished 12th in the final 2020 AP poll. Indiana began 2021 ranked 17th in the nation, but after injuries to its top-two quarterbacks and two starting cornerbacks — not to mention a schedule featuring ranked opponents in six of nine games — Allen and the Hoosiers find themselves ineligible for a bowl game and in the midst of a disastrous season in full force. 

And now, whatever is left to salvage in the final three games of the season against Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue relies largely on the development of McCulley. There’s a lot of weight on the freshman quarterback’s shoulders at a point in the season that no one expected, but McCulley and the Hoosiers don’t have a choice.

“I’ve just got to play ball,” McCulley said. 

As Allen depicted with his arm after Saturday’s game, Indiana is currently in a valley — a deep one. Allen’s program is built on toughness, and he has stressed throughout this difficult season that toughness is built through adversity. Until the final whistle of the 2021 season, adversity will be plentiful for an Indiana team crawling towards the finish line. And led by a true freshman quarterback in the final trio of games, whether or not Allen’s message resonates with the locker room is to be seen.

“Circumstances don’t dictate how hard you play,” Allen said.

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