Indiana football: What's at stake in the final game of the 2021 regular season?
When Indiana lines up against Purdue in Ross-Ade Stadium Saturday, the Hoosiers might not be playing for much more than pride.
It’s not what they expected. A season with so much hope — a No. 17 national ranking in the preseason, with a majority of the players back following a successful 2020 campaign — turned into a complete dud. Nothing has gone right, from an offense that failed to regain the big-play ability that was a hallmark of a year ago, to a defense that lost its magic, to a plethora of injuries that prevented Indiana from any sort of late-season recovery.
What a mess.
IU will carry a 7-game losing streak into West Lafayette, and only one of those games during the stretch — a 3-point loss at Maryland — was competitive. Otherwise, the Hoosiers have gotten smoked. It’s painful to say, but after the Week 10 home loss to Rutgers, when IU was saddled with a 35-point defeat and the highlight might have been dancing shirtless fans in the stands, some had to question whether the Hoosiers had quit.
It’s legitimate to wonder.
At the least, the Hoosiers are wandering without answers, playing their third- and fourth-string quarterbacks to very little effect, sending out walk-on running backs after their rushing depth transferred before and during the season, putting too much burden on a worn-down and banged-up defense.
The end of the Bucket Game — it’s back after a one-year hiatus because of Covid last season — will bring the start of questions for Tom Allen: Do the offensive woes warrant coaching staff changes? Or can injuries be blamed for the the Hoosiers’ gross offensive inefficiency? Will Michael Penix Jr., who will likely see yet another season end in injury, be back next season (after he went through Senior Day activities before Saturday’s loss to Minnesota)? If not, is Donaven McCulley the answer at quarterback? Or does IU need to hit the transfer portal? Can the defense bounce back quickly in 2022, despite losing captain Micah McFadden and a bunch of others? Is Allen too much rah-rah and not enough substance?
Questions without answers.
Indiana was supposed to have spent this season validating that it could be a player in the Big Ten East. Maybe there would be tough sledding, as teams like Michigan and Penn State were unlikely to replicate the struggles they had in 2020, but if IU could have gotten back to a bowl game for a third consecutive season, then it might have proved that IU was around to stay. Instead, Indiana looked like the same old Indiana, and those crowds at the beginning of the season, when Memorial Stadium was packed for opponents like top-10 Cincinnati and Michigan State, was emptied out with the consecutive year-end losses to Rutgers and Minnesota.
Could IU salvage something with a win at Purdue? Yes.
Is it likely? No.
But a win would give the Hoosiers at least something to build on as they head to an offseason with a bunch of questions. It’ll be hard to pull off, considering IU will be at least a couple TD underdog and with little confidence that the Hoosiers’ offense could keep up on the scoreboard. Take out the 35-point outing vs. Maryland, and here’s IU’s offensive output in the other 7 Big Ten games: 6, 0, 15, 7, 7, 3 and 14 points. That’s an average of only 7.4 points per game. Heck, put in the 35 vs. Maryland and the average is still only 10.9 per game.
It’ll take some sort of explosive effort to compete at Purdue, let alone beat the Boilermakers. But it’ll be over soon enough, and then Allen and the Hoosiers can focus on finding answers to all those questions as they try to get back to what they think they can be.