Few things in college football are more special than a rivalry game.
Sometimes, even if one team is on the precipice of a national championship and the other is looking for its first victory, the matchup comes down to the final whistle.
But sometimes one of those teams is Indiana.
Indiana’s 2021 season ended with a whimper in a 44-7 defeat to Purdue. The Hoosiers finished the season 2-10, their worst since 2011.
The Boilermakers appear to be a perfectly competent unit, but they didn’t need to be Saturday.
On the game’s first drive, Indiana’s defense had a chance to force a turnover on downs when Purdue went for it on fourth and goal from the three yard line. Purdue senior wideout Jackson Anthrop took a pitch, ran to his right and then threw the ball into double coverage in the corner of the end zone.
Rather than turn his head to simply bat down the ill-advised pass, Indiana senior defensive back Jaylin Williams leaped into Purdue junior tight end Payne Durham like Jennifer Grey hopping into Patrick Swayze’s awaiting arms at the climax of “Dirty Dancing.” Much to my chagrin, Durham didn’t even try to catch, hoist and romantically spin Williams, who received a pass interference penalty.
The Boilermakers received a first down and scored a touchdown two plays later to go up 7-0.
On their first possession, the Hoosiers trotted out sophomore walk-on Grant Gremel for his first career start instead of freshman Donaven McCulley, who started the previous four games.
Much like McCulley two weeks ago, Gremel fumbled the opening snap. However, he rewarded his coaches’ trust by picking the ball up before a defender could land on it, firmly establishing himself as the superior quarterback.
To his credit, Gremel led an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive. He finished the game with 147 yards on 18-30 passing but also threw an interception and was sacked four times for -28 yards.
Whether on offense or defense, Indiana seemingly couldn’t string two good plays together without blundering.
Two minutes into the second quarter, Williams intercepted Purdue senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell and sprinted 74 yards untouched into the end zone. It was perhaps the best defensive play of Indiana’s season and a huge momentum swing — at least until a replay clearly showed Indiana senior defensive back Raheem Layne completely body checking a Purdue wide receiver well before the ball reached his general vicinity.
Just like their first possession, the Boilermakers took advantage of the penalty yardage and free first down by scoring a touchdown on the next play, this time a 24-yard pass to sophomore tight end Paul Piferi.
Indiana’s secondary refused to let Purdue burn it with deep throws. While the Hoosiers didn’t allow a pass of more than 28 yards, they also let O’Connell complete 26-31 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns.
Even junior kicker Charles Campbell, one of the few bright spots for the Hoosiers, converted fewer field goals than a Purdue student wearing a shark onesie did during a commercial break midway through the third quarter.
The fact that the Hoosiers had more penalty yards — 67 — than net rushing yards — 58 — tells you the Boilermakers didn’t necessarily have to beat them to win. Indiana was going to make sure it lost regardless of its opponent.
I realize it isn’t very original or creative to criticize Indiana in 2021, but if I exclusively said positive things I would fall about 500 words short of my quota. All I can really say in defense of the Hoosiers is I’m not sure what group of coaches and athletes could have looked remotely impressive given their strength of schedule and comically bad injury luck.
I’m certainly not the first person to point this point, but it is absolutely bonkers that Gremel, McCulley and three different walk-on running backs all received appreciable playing time in arguably the biggest game of Indiana’s season.
Throughout the 2021 season, the Hoosiers have become the Theseus’ ship of college football teams. If the entire starting lineup gets injured and is replaced by second-stringers, which is the true Indiana football after all — the one on the field or the one on the injured reserve list?