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COLUMN: Donaven McCulley probably won’t save Indiana football, and that’s fine

<p>Freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley throws the ball while on the run Oct. 23, 2021 at Memorial Stadium. McCulley threw for 242 yards against Maryland. </p>

Freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley throws the ball while on the run Oct. 23, 2021 at Memorial Stadium. McCulley threw for 242 yards against Maryland.

We are approaching week 10 of the college football season. Just like everyone expected, Indiana football reporters are frantically publishing stories, columns and in-depth analyses about third-string freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley.

If you had told me in August that McCulley would be the Hoosiers’ starting quarterback on the road against Michigan on Nov. 6, I would have made a few assumptions.

First, I would assume junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had suffered a significant injury. Go figure. 

Second, I would assume McCulley had done something really impressive to convince offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan to start him over junior Jack Tuttle. 

IU football: Nick Sheridan’s move to sideline aids McCulley’s 242-yard performance for Indiana football

Finally, I would probably guess Indiana had reached a fairly impressive record by the time McCulley stepped in at quarterback. The Hoosiers would be on track to challenge for a Big Ten title, but an injury to Penix pushed the season slightly off course.

Let’s call that wishful thinking.

In reality, both Penix and Tuttle might be out for the year. McCulley didn’t wow the coaches in practice by outperforming Tuttle, he merely looked like a better option than former walk-on sophomore fifth-string quarterback Grant Gremel. 

Not to mention, McCulley isn’t exactly taking over a team on the cusp of a conference title. He’s the Hoosiers’ final, desperate shot at bowl eligibility.

Obviously, this isn’t the season most people envisioned for the Hoosiers. Save for perhaps a few particularly vindictive Purdue fans, it definitely isn’t the season anyone wanted for them.

With a bowl game almost certainly out of reach, Indiana fans latch on to what I believe is one of the most exciting phenomena in college football —  the backup quarterback.

When the offense floundered under Penix, some fans clamored for Tuttle time. When the offense floundered under Tuttle, those fans clamored for a time-related word starting with m they could stick after McCulley. 

McCulley’s moment came Oct. 23 against Ohio State. He threw the ball six times and ran it 11 more, generating 39 total yards. 

Even the most delusional fans know the Ohio State game wasn’t a fair sample size for any quarterback. That’s why all eyes were on McCulley when Indiana visited Maryland last Saturday.

Related: Offense outperforms defense in Indiana football’s 38-35 loss to Maryland

Even though the Hoosiers lost 38-35, McCulley wasn’t the reason why. The first-time starter threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns. 

I’m not saying Sheridan had any reason to fear for his job security prior to Saturday. However, if I were responsible for the least-improved offense in the Big Ten — an offense that had scored just twice against conference opponents — I personally would be very relieved to see McCulley playing even remotely well. 

Of course, McCulley can’t undo the 65 penalty yards the Hoosiers incurred. He can’t block the defenders that blast through the offensive line. He certainly can’t tackle for the defense or stop its defensive backs from leaving wide receivers wide open.

All McCulley can do at this point is improve his skill set and try to win a few games along the way. He most likely doesn’t care if fans have staked their emotional wellbeing in his success.

When I was a freshman living with two other 18-year-olds, it was a miracle if one of us carried a 3-pound trash bag down the hall before it developed its own ecosystem. It probably isn’t fair to expect this 18-year-old to carry a seriously depleted football team to a bowl game.

Logically, a struggling offense shouldn’t benefit from a less experienced quarterback who the coaches decided wasn’t their best —  or second-best —  option at the start of the season. However, when you’ve seen a brutal schedule and an unforgiving slew of injuries grind your favorite team to a crimson pulp, you suddenly don’t care very much about the logic.

Anyway, given the rate at which Indiana’s quarterbacks are getting injured, I figure I should start planning ahead. If you need me, I’ll be at Monroe Hospital. One of those newborns is bound to have a cannon for an arm, and it’s never too early to start scouting.

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