How IU football’s 2021 season imploded: Part one — the quarterbacks and injuries

You want an exhaustive list of what went wrong with this once promising IU football season?

How much time do you have?  We are going to break our analysis of that question into multiple articles because, well, there is a lot of meat on the bone.

Time is an operative word, because in so many ways it seems the program has suddenly and inexplicably warped back to Gerry DiNardo era, with all hope lost.  From an inauspicious beginning when freshman running back David Holloman ran on the field at Iowa with “Indinia” sewn to his chest plate, to a 38-3 home loss to lowly Rutgers, and no Power Five wins in between, hopeless feels about right.

Is that true?  We’ll save the question of what the disappointing collapse that was this 2021 season truly means for the future until after the season.  But first it is time to dissect how we got here.  In part one we examine the quarterback room, and a seemingly never-ending rash of injuries and other personnel challenges.

What quarterback depth?  If ever there was a stat that should have told you the 2020 season might have been fool’s gold, or at least that the 2021 season could be different, it was this:  Pro Football Focus’ highest graded returning QBs under pressure — No. 3, Michael Penix, Jr.

There was a lot of offseason noise (that proved to be true) that suggested IU overachieved in 2020, and water would eventually find its level.  Throwing the football while under pressure is playing with fire, especially in the case of a quarterback coming off a third straight season- ending injury who isn’t particularly adept at navigating pocket pressure.

Whatever magic Penix found in 2020 slinging darts in tight windows while under duress, he found nothing of the sort in 2021.  And the trouble started right away when Penix threw three interceptions at Iowa.  He’d go on to throw seven picks, and his successor Jack Tuttle has thrown five more.  Collectively, Indiana’s 12 interceptions rank No. 114 (out of 130) in college football.  A clear argument could be made the interceptions at least cost the Hoosiers the Cincinnati and Michigan State games, and they certainly sucked the life out of the Iowa game.

On paper Indiana appeared to have one of the best three-deep quarterback depth charts in the Big Ten.  In the end, they had three quarterbacks who, each very for different reasons, weren’t ready to step in and be effective.  Penix, we’d argue, was not mentally ready, Tuttle not consistently ready, and McCulley just 18 and never expected to play this much.

Collectively, PFF grades Indiana’s passing game No. 118 out of 130.  According to the NCAA, IU is No. 106 in passing yards per game, No. 110 in passing yards per completion, and No. 129 in team passing efficiency.

And yes, we’ll get to the offensive line, a group that clearly exacerbated all of the problems by allowing pressure, the wide receivers, who have rarely gained separation and routinely dropped the ball, and the offensive scheme as a whole.

Credit – IU Athletics

Never-ending injuries and other personnel challenges.  Injuries are part of football of course, but Indiana has had more than its fair share, especially at the skill positions and in the secondary.  In total Tom Allen said on Monday the team has had 30 players miss time due to injury and 18 have been lost for the season.

No where is that more apparent than at quarterback, where at one point against Ohio State the Hoosiers turned to walk-on Grant Gremel, who was the projected fifth-stringer going into spring practice.  Ahead of him Penix, Tuttle, and Dexter Williams have all missed substantial time, and of course McCulley has been put on the field before he was truly ready.

Similarly, Indiana looked to its fifth through eighth backs on the first fall camp depth chart against Rutgers.  Two ahead of them, Sampson James and Tim Baldwin, Jr., transferred, starter Stephen Carr was hurt against Michigan, David Ellis was lost for the season a while ago, and freshman Trent Howland was suspended for two games.

We’ll have more to say about the wide receiver position and D.J. Matthews‘ injury, but he was a massive week four loss.  Texas A&M transfer Cam Buckley has also missed the last five games, and Javon Swinton was suspended for the opener.

Indiana thought it had its starting offensive line early in fall camp but had to shuffle in week one when starting tackle Luke Haggard was out the first two games of the season. Mike Katic has missed time, and Dylan Powell missed the Cincinnati game.

On the defensive line multi-year starter James Head, Jr. missed the first five games, and emerging pass-rusher Jaren Handy was likely lost for the season at Michigan.

Not part of the team has been more banged up than the secondary, and that started in week one when safety Devon Matthews was knocked out of the Iowa game and missed two after that.  Fellow safety Raheem Layne was knocked out of the Penn State game, backup safety Josh Sanguinetti has missed the last two contests, Bryson Bonds has missed six, and Ole Miss transfer Jonathan Haynes, five.

To open the season the cornerbacks were widely viewed as the best group on the team, and perhaps the best in the Big Ten.  First team All-American Tiawan Mullen has missed the last six games if you don’t count a couple games where he tried to play through an injury for a few snaps.  Reese Taylor just returned on Saturday after missing four games.  Third starter Jaylin Williams missed a game, their top backup Chris Keys was lost for the season, and Larry Tracy III transferred midseason.

The linebackers were largely immune from injuries until Saturday when Cam Jones missed his first game.  Also on Saturday against Rutgers two rotational backups James Miller and Thomas Allen were also out.  And of course Micah McFadden was famously ejected in the first half against Cincinnati.


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