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Quarterback uncertainty, challenge for secondary headline Old Oaken Bucket as disaster season concludes

Disastrous, off the rails, a collapse, a failure – whichever title best describes the 2021 Indiana football season concludes with its final chapter on Saturday. 

Indiana and Purdue will play for the Old Oaken Bucket at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday in West Lafayette. It’s the second consecutive Bucket game played at Purdue after last season’s contest never came to fruition due to COVID-19. 

The Hoosiers have lost seven consecutive games, played four different quarterbacks, matched up with six teams in the College Football Playoff top 16 and battled countless injuries to reach this point. And now, Indiana has one final chance to salvage anything left of a lost 2021 campaign. 

“Winning the Bucket would make us feel a whole lot different going into this offseason,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. 

Here are three questions I’m asking before the 123rd Old Oaken Bucket game.

Is there any fight left in the Hoosiers?

Indiana played four teams ranked in the AP top 10 through the first seven weeks of the season – not to mention opening the 2021 season at Iowa. Early on, a difficult schedule and turnovers from the quarterback position were the overwhelming reasons for coming up short against the nation’s best. 

But as Indiana’s schedule eased up, the same problems continued. The Hoosier offense has ranked toward the bottom of the Big Ten all year, and a struggling offense means extra snaps for the defense. Indiana’s defense went from a strength at the start of the year to ranked 13th in the Big Ten with 32.2 points allowed per game.

Indiana versus Minnesota (Max Wood/HN).

The Big Ten powerhouses took care of business early in the season, and Indiana didn’t come out alive. The result as been blowouts to Rutgers and Minnesota at Memorial Stadium the past two weeks by the tune of 38-3 and 35-14, respectively.

Indiana has looked confused on offense, tired on defense and uninspired as a whole. Allen said he welcomed former players Mark Deal, Anthony Thompson and Nate Sudfeld to motivate the Hoosiers before their rivalry game. We’ll see if these messages can translate to a different on-field product in West Lafayette. 

“We just try to take advantage of all of them that have a stake in this big game and that have had a very amazing experience playing in the game,” Allen said. “Obviously it’s personal and it’s passionate, which makes it special.”

Who slows down (or tries to slow down) David Bell?

Purdue’s star wide receiver David Bell was named one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s best receiver. Pittsburgh’s Jordan Addison and Alabama’s Jameson Williams joined Bell as the trio of finalists.

And compared to the rest of the Big Ten, Bell sits atop nearly every receiving category. He ranks first in the conference in receptions (87), yards (1,207), receptions per game (8.7) and average yards per game (120.7) while playing in 10 of Purdue’s 11 games. 

The outlier when looking at Bell’s production, though, is his lack of touchdowns. Bell has reached the end zone five times this season, compared to other Big Ten leaders like Penn State’s Jahan Dotson (10), and Ohio State’s Garrett Willson (11) and Chris Olave (13). 

Indiana’s secondary has been banged up all year, but Allen said everyone is making one final push to play. Tiawan Mullen, 2020 All-American cornerback, was injured against Western Kentucky and last saw the field for a few snaps against Maryland, but looked far from his normal self.

Josh Sanguinetti is also questionable for Saturday’s contest, leaving 2020 All-Big Ten cornerbacks Jaylin Williams and Reese Taylor to carry the load versus Bell. Taylor missed a handful of games in the middle of the season, which has allowed Noah Pierre to step into a larger role. 

Allen is also unsure if 2020 All-Big Ten safety Devon Matthews will play on Saturday, but regardless of injury status, it will take communication and cohesion from the entire Indiana secondary to slow down Bell. 

Does it matter who’s under center?

Michael Penix Jr. hasn’t played since Oct. 2 at Penn State, and Jack Tuttle was most recently injured against Ohio State on Oct. 23. Since then, Donaven McCulley has started four games at quarterback with an 0-4 record.

McCulley has shown flashes of potential with his feet, evading tacklers and running them over at the goal line – rushing 64 times for 137 yards and a touchdown – but his passing has been suspect at best. On the season, McCulley has completed 35 of 82 passes for 475 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. 

Grant Gremel against Minnesota (Max Wood/HN).

Allen didn’t name an official starting quarterback this week, saying that he’ll go with whoever gives Indiana the best chance to win. This leaves the door open for walk-on quarterback Grant Gremel – who has appeared in three games this season in a backup role – to make his first collegiate start.

Gremel is the only Indiana quarterback without an interception this season, completing 14 of 28 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. McCulley and Gremel both played against Rutgers and Minnesota, so all signs point to Indiana utilizing a two-quarterback system again in West Lafayette.

But regardless of who takes snaps on Saturday, they will likely be faced with constant pressure. Indiana’s offensive line ranks 81st in the nation in pass blocking – according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) – and matches up with Purdue’s standout defensive end George Karlaftis. The junior is tied for fifth in the nation in quarterback hits (13), tied for 10th in total pressures (48) and is tied for the 17th best pass rush grade in the nation (90.2), per PFF.

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