For the first time all season, everything was going right for Indiana football. It took two plays to score a touchdown on the first drive, and it was driving on the second, threatening to go up two scores on Purdue.
In an instant, it changed. Sophomore quarterback Dexter Williams II, rolling out of the pocket and looking to pass, collapsed to the ground untouched with an apparent right knee injury. Williams, whose mobility revitalized Indiana’s offense in last week’s win over Michigan State, had to be carted off the field and was taken to Bloomington Hospital for further evaluation.
In Indiana’s 30-16 loss to Purdue, it was a clear turning point. The wind left the Hoosiers’ sails. They turned to junior Connor Bazelak, the starter just two weeks ago, but the offense never came close to reclaiming any semblance of potency.
“(Williams) did a great job last week, and I felt great about our game plan, and it was working to perfection,” head coach Tom Allen said in a postgame press conference. “We were driving the ball when he went down. Just a freaky non-contact. You all saw it. I just can't put into words how I feel in some ways with regards to the injuries we've had for two straight years with key guys.”
Allen said Williams’ injury needs further evaluation, but it isn’t an ACL injury.
The rest of the way it was a flat, uninspiring football team that looked outmatched compared to its in-state rivals. Purdue walked into Bloomington and strolled out with the Old Oaken Bucket and, thanks to Iowa’s loss Friday, a trip to the Big Ten Championship.
“For a guy like Dex, you don’t want that to happen,” senior wide receiver Emery Simmons said. “Just seeing how he came in last week to play well against Michigan State and got us a dub… for that to happen, it was a tough moment, but you gotta shake it. Football is still going on.”
In Williams’ stead, Bazelak completed 24 of 42 passes for 201 yards. Simmons caught four passes for 64 yards and the Hoosiers added 215 yards on the ground. Without Williams, however, the offense struggled, only adding six more points in the remaining three quarters.
“(Bazelak) came in there and gave us all he had,” Allen said. “He's come in there and battled for us, we didn't score enough points to win the game. At the end of the day, it's all about everybody, and Connor stayed with us even though some guys made different decisions, but Connor has got high character and he's an awesome young man, and I'm proud of him.”
When it mattered, Indiana’s offense couldn’t finish — Indiana went 2-for-4 in the red zone, with the only touchdown being a garbage time pass to running back Josh Henderson as time expired. One field goal attempt was blocked, while another — coming on the same drive where Williams went down — landed short.
“When you get in that area of the field, you've got to win the one-on-ones,” Allen said. “We were not able to do that. It is a little harder to run the football down there, but obviously those happened without Dexter in the game in terms of the way we had planned those out. I thought we would be able to finish those with touchdowns if we had him in those situations, but we didn't.”
The Hoosiers’ first touchdown came on the second play from scrimmage. They ran an option play, and Williams chose to pitch it to freshman Jaylin Lucas, who jetted past Purdue’s defense for a 71-yard touchdown.
The play was evidence of why Indiana was better with Williams. Purdue was forced to respect his ability to run the ball, allowing Lucas, an equally electric runner, a gap once he got the ball.
“Having a dual-threat quarterback who can throw and run, you have to watch for both,” Simmons said. “That’s what was getting them early in the game. They saw that Dex could run… it’s kind of hard to pick and choose your poison because if you try to step on the option, it’s going to Jay Lucas, and you saw what happened with it.”
Indiana finished the 2022 campaign with a 4-8 record, a two-game improvement on the heels of an abysmal 2021, but there’s a large bridge it needs to cross to be competitive again.
The better question to ask isn’t about how the Hoosiers can bounce back in the next few years, it’s if they can. Under Allen, and his $20 million buyout, it would take a drastic turnaround even to compete for bowl eligibility in the coming years.
Indiana’s top recruits, players such as Dasan McCullough and Donaven McCulley, have declined in productivity. Past stars, such as former All-American Tiawan Mullen, Ty Fryfogle before him, and even kicker Charles Campbell, have regressed while at Indiana.
The blueprint is there, at least on offense. Williams’ mobility showed that Indiana can compete with a bad offensive line, and alongside playmakers like Lucas, have the potential to turn out big plays. Allen said the staff will look to revamp the offense this offseason to bring out the abilities of a mobile quarterback.
“The idea of the tempo that we used and the quarterback run game and throw game combination, to me, is really what I want us to be able to do,” Allen said.
After a second straight losing season, Indiana will enter the offseason hoping to find a way to turn the program around. The image of Williams, laying on a stretcher, while Allen stands over him and comforts his mother, will burn in the minds of this program for a year.