A cold breeze swept through Memorial Stadium early Saturday night. Bright lights illuminated heavy rain pelting the 50,000 attendants eagerly awaiting a battle for the ages.
Hoosiers versus Buckeyes. Spectators versus pneumonia. Hope versus crushing reality.
When the final whistle mercifully concluded Indiana football’s 54-7 loss to No. 5 Ohio State, the sold-out crowd had shriveled to a cluster of particularly devoted fans, most of whom appeared to be rooting for the Buckeyes.
If you watched the Hoosiers suffer their worst defeat in two seasons and simply want to wallow in misery for a little while, I completely understand.
That said, am I wrong to say it was kind of funny?
Look, I’m not trying to make light of what must be a really awful feeling for Indiana’s players. It takes me a solid week to emotionally recover after I tell a joke to a group of friends and only one of them gives me a courtesy chuckle, so I have to imagine the Hoosiers are experiencing a rather potent cocktail of negative emotions.
However, this defeat was so quintessentially Indiana that it was almost comical.
On its opening possession, Ohio State’s top-ranked offense marched down the field unimpeded to take a 7-0 lead. At this point, a normal underdog would have gone three and out, punted the ball and slowly succumbed to the inevitable.
Indiana is not normal.
The Hoosiers covered 75 yards in 15 plays. Despite facing constant pressure from the Buckeyes’ defensive line, junior quarterback Jack Tuttle kept his poise to eventually connect with senior tight end Peyton Hendershot on a 7-yard touchdown strike.
I was so taken aback by Indiana offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan tactically shredding Ohio State’s defense that I initially didn’t notice Tuttle writhing in pain on the ground.
Tuttle was already playing in relief for junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. That meant it was up to freshman Donaven McCulley to reignite Indiana’s offense.
The Hoosiers immediately went three and out.
The next time Indiana’s offense took the field, it trailed Ohio State 21-7. At this point, walk-on sophomore Grant Gremel took over for McCulley.
When Indiana head coach Tom Allen was drafting a strategy to upset Ohio State, I highly doubt the phrase “fourth-string quarterback” ever entered his mind. Then again, I also doubt he thought much about his second-string punter, but that’s exactly who we saw when senior kickoff specialist Jared Smolar replaced freshman punter James Evans on the Hoosiers’ third drive.
Smolar immediately fumbled the snap and was tackled in the endzone for a safety.
Plenty of teams go three and out. Only Indiana does it with the backup quarterback’s backup’s backup leading the offense.
Likewise, every team surrenders the occasional safety. How many do it in complete Benny Hill fashion with a backup punter desperately chasing a loose ball across the Slip ‘N Slide that is his own end zone?
The rest of the game unfolded more or less how you’d expect. Ohio State redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for 266 yards and four touchdowns while his running backs combined for 189 yards and three scores on the ground.
Does this game play out differently if Tuttle doesn’t get injured? Maybe. Given how lackluster Indiana’s offense has looked in 2021, I’m not sure it would matter much in the end.
To be fair, I can’t just criticize Sheridan and his offense without acknowledging the extreme degree of difficulty he has faced. Plenty of coordinators can’t even design schemes for one passer in one season, let alone three in one game.
First came Tuttle, then McCulley, then Gremel, then Tuttle again, then — wait a minute.
What are you doing reading this? Didn’t you hear? The Hoosiers need a fresh arm. Grab your helmet and get out there champ.