CHAMPAIGN, IL. – Brendan Sorsby stood still and collected his thoughts before trudging back to the sideline as over 53,000 fans erupted.
Indiana football’s redshirt freshman quarterback had just thrown an incomplete pass to junior receiver Donaven McCulley on 4th and 3, giving the ball back to Illinois with less than three minutes to play and the Hoosiers trailing 42-34.
In that moment, Indiana’s postseason hopes appeared finished, with its defense allowing points on five of the previous six possessions.
But the Hoosiers’ defense rallied and forced an Illini punt, thrusting Sorsby back onto the field with 1:37 left in regulation. Just over a minute later, he was in the endzone, completing a 26-yard touchdown pass to redshirt senior receiver DeQuece Carter.
Moments later, Sorsby found senior receiver E.J. Williams in the back left corner of the endzone, bringing the Hoosiers and Illini back to even.
Indiana (3-7, 1-6 Big Ten) ultimately fell short, taking a 48-45 overtime loss to Illinois (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
But Sorsby’s late-game heroics shouldn’t be overlooked. He went 3-of-4 for 55 yards and added another 30 rushing yards on two attempts, accounting for all 85 yards of offense on the final drive.
This strong closing stretch was a microcosm of another breakthrough performance from Sorsby, who completed 22-of-33 passes for 289 yards and three touchdowns, all career-highs. He threw an interception and lost a fumble, which can be chalked up as growing pains for a young player but shouldn’t undermine his standout showing.
“Brendan Sorsby showed the kind of special player he can be doing some much better things offensively,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said postgame.
As the Hoosiers, who have now missed a bowl game for the third consecutive year, look to build towards future seasons, ascending talents like Sorsby are key reasons for optimism – and Saturday’s loss highlighted a few others who can be a part of the solution.
McCulley followed up a career-best performance in the Nov. 4 win over Wisconsin by breaking his previous highs, posting 11 receptions for 137 yards and two touchdowns. He drew four defensive pass interference penalties, illustrating how difficult he was to cover for the Illini’s defensive backs.
Allen has said multiple times this season he believes the 6-foot-5, 210-pound McCulley has the talent to develop into a game-changing receiver, and he delivered on that belief Saturday while earning praise from his signal caller after the game.
“Really big body, great hands, uses his body to his advantage,” Sorsby said. “He did a great job of that today.”
Sorsby and McCulley were joined by redshirt sophomore running back Trent Howland as offensive bright spots, scoring his first career touchdown and setting new marks with 13 rushes for 72 yards.
Sorsby, McCulley and Howland have emerged in recent weeks, proving themselves as playmakers and inspiring confidence they can help turn the tide in Bloomington.
But the Hoosiers were in playoff mode, as Allen said previously, and couldn’t afford another loss if they were to achieve their oft-stated goal of making a bowl game.
The offense delivered, scoring a season-high 42 points behind the above trio’s strong play. But defensively, Indiana faltered, giving up 662 yards to an Illini team that entered Saturday averaging 366 yards per game.
To make matters worse, Illinois was forced to play backup quarterback John Paddock, as starter Luke Altmyer missed the game due to a concussion. Paddock threw for 507 yards, the most Indiana’s allowed in Allen’s tenure.
This year’s iteration of Indiana football ultimately made too many mistakes. There were untimely special teams errors, several defensive blowups and weeks of quarterback controversy as Sorsby and redshirt freshman Tayven Jackson alternated, leading to uninspiring offensive play. That’s really just scratching the surface of the Hoosiers’ deepest issues.
But Indiana’s played better the past three weeks. An upset victory over Wisconsin is sandwiched between soul-snatching road losses to Illinois and No. 9 Penn State, during which the Hoosiers had chances to win but couldn’t capitalize.
Indiana sits at just 3-22 in Big Ten play since the start of 2021. Coming close isn’t good enough, and another bowl-less season only adds to the pressure on Allen – but the Hoosiers should take solace in knowing they have a budding core of players at important positions set to return next season.
But that’s a thought for another day. For now, all focus is on Indiana’s turbulent campaign officially reaching its breaking point, forcing the team to stay together for two more weeks with hopes of ending the year on a high note.
“It’s a tough loss, but we’ve got to finish off strong and my boys know that,” Howland said. “We have two trophy games coming up ahead, so it’ll feel better if we finish out winning those than the loss we took today. We're going to do it together.”