CHAMPAIGN, IL. — Sophomore running back Jaylin Lucas looked dejected as he slowly strode by himself into the tunnel. Not too far ahead of him, redshirt senior defensive tackle Andre Carter held his head low and continually shook it in frustration, refusing to glance up at the celebration surrounding him.
Merely moments prior, Illinois scored a walk off touchdown in overtime to down Indiana football 48-45, crushing the Hoosiers’ hopes of making a bowl game.
“Just no talking,” is how junior receiver Donaven McCulley described Indiana’s locker room Saturday afternoon after the loss.
In stark contrast to previous demoralizing defeats, Indiana’s offense wasn’t the root cause of the team’s struggles — in fact, it was perhaps the unit’s best showing of the season. Rather, Indiana’s secondary, which has endured a slew of injuries in the past few games, was continually gashed by Illinois senior backup quarterback John Paddock.
Paddock threw for 507 yards and tossed four touchdowns, and junior receiver Isaiah Williams hauled in nine catches for 200 yards and two scores. Illinois totaled 662 yards of offense, tied for the most in any game in head coach Tom Allen’s tenure, and tied for the most since 2013.
Allen wasn’t just frustrated by the continual lapses in coverage from Indiana’s defensive backs.
“Very very very very very very frustrated,” Allen said. “No excuse for it.”
Regardless, redshirt freshman Brendan Sorsby shined, instilling an even higher level of confidence among his teammates and coaches. Sorsby posted a career-high 289 passing yards, threw three touchdowns and added 53 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground.
All game, Sorsby stood tall in the pocket and delivered strikes around the field. When protection eroded and he was forced to scramble, Sorsby frequently extended plays and lowered his shoulder to gain extra yardage.
The Denton, Texas native put it all on display amid the Hoosiers’ final drive of regulation. Trailing 42-34 with 1:37 left in the game and no timeouts, Indiana took possession on its own 15-yard line.
Sorsby utilized his legs to scamper for a 17-yard pickup. Then, he delivered a rope to senior wideout DeQuece Carter for 25 more yards. Sorsby scrambled for another first down, and subsequently connected with Carter for a 26-yard score with 28 seconds remaining.
Needing to convert a two-point conversion to force overtime — and keep the Hoosiers’ bowl hopes afloat — Sorsby took a shotgun snap and started to drift toward his left. He subtly pointed his left arm toward the corner of the end zone and flicked a lofted pass.
Senior receiver E.J. Williams Jr., who had scurried from the other side of the end zone, tracked the descension of the ball and reeled it in. He absorbed a tough collision but maintained control, knotting the game at 42 and adding another impressive play to Sorsby’s highlight-reel performance.
“It’s what you dream of man,” Sorsby said of the drive. “I’m confident in our guys, trust them to go make some plays. We got the job done.”
Even against an FCS team in Indiana State University, the Hoosiers hadn’t tallied 42 points all season. In fact, aside from the win over the Sycamores, Indiana hadn’t scored 30 points in a game, and had been held under 20 on six different occasions.
Since fully taking the reins of the starting quarterback position against Rutgers, the Hoosiers’ offense has steadily improved. The development coincided with the promotion of Rod Carey to offensive coordinator, who took over after the firing of Walt Bell.
Sorsby has opened up the downfield passing game significantly and he’s developed a strong rapport with McCulley, who had a career-best game of 11 catches, 137 yards and two scores against Illinois, including a brilliant back shoulder grab midway through the second quarter.
After struggling with accuracy and decision making earlier in the season, Sorsby’s poise has become evident. Prior to Saturday, his best outing as a starter came against Penn State, the third-ranked scoring defense in the Big Ten.
And against Illinois, aside from one third quarter interception as his lone blemish, Sorsby took his play a step further.
“Brendan Sorsby showed the kind of special player he can be doing some much better things offensively,” Allen said.
After desperately needing a stable option at quarterback all season, Sorsby offered some optimism Saturday against the Illini. He orchestrated four consecutive touchdown drives between the first and second quarters and capped it off with a masterpiece in the waning moments of regulation.
While Indiana’s defense floundered and the postseason is moot in the final two games, Sorsby and the Hoosiers’ offense flashed what it can become. His moxie and leadership skills have grown considerably alongside his arm talent and running ability.
They’re things his teammates see every day in practice, and they’re finally manifesting in games.
“He’s just been working,” redshirt sophomore running back Howland said. “Sorsby, he works, that’s all it is. Sometimes he feels like there’s pressure on his back, but he plays loose and does what he has to do. I feel like he’s grown a lot.”