Eight games into the season, Indiana’s quarterback situation isn’t what anyone expected.
But down the road, it was widely expected that Donaven McCulley would eventually become the starter. One day.
That day was Saturday at Maryland, and while Indiana lost its fourth straight game and fifth straight in the Big Ten, McCulley wasn’t the reason why. In fact, he was part of the reason IU had a fighting chance in a 38-35 loss at College Park.
“Proud of Don McCulley, on the road, true freshman, gave us a chance,” head coach Tom Allen said. “Got some awesome experience to play in this environment at his age.”
McCulley completed 14-of-25 passes for 242 yards, the second most for an IU quarterback in a game this season. The 6-foot-5 true freshman appeared to take major strides from a shaky effort last weekend against Ohio State.
“I felt comfortable,” McCulley said after the game.
Season opening starter Michael Penix, Jr. was not in uniform for the third straight game. His backup Jack Tuttle didn’t even make the trip to Maryland so he could focus on rehabbing a foot injury. Their status meant McCulley took the majority of the first team reps this week, and he was also intimately involved in the game planning for Maryland.
“He made some good throws, gave us a chance on some deep balls,” Allen said. … “I thought he showed some poise. Thought he scrambled a little bit and extended plays with his legs. He made some good contested throws where he had pressure in his face and he put the ball in the right spot. He had a good solid week of practice and I really expected him to play well. Was hoping he would play well, but obviously you have to do it in a game. So that’s definitely one huge positive was his performance.”
McCulley found Peyton Hendershot for both of his touchdown passes, the first two of his career. He also completed a well thrown ball to Hendershot for a two-point conversion. The redshirt senior tight end believes if McCulley is the quarterback for the foreseeable future, he will continue to give IU a chance in its final four games.
“He’s a gamer, he’s a ball player,” Hendershot said. “He’s going to make plays and help us win. I believe in Donaven, the whole team believes in Donaven.”
McCulley believes the week of preparation helped him, but he knows he still has a long way to go when it comes to reading Big Ten defenses. He was asked after the game what he is focused on improving.
“I just need to get ready for them (defenses) trying to play tricks on me because I’m a young quarterback,” McCulley said. “Just making sure I know where my guys are making sure I know where safeties and corners are, who’s coming and blitzing.”
McCulley just turned 18 in January. He played multiple sports in high school and he didn’t enroll early at IU and thus didn’t attend spring practice. So he is about as new to all of this as anyone could be. But he didn’t come into his first start passive. McCulley took several deep shots down the field early in the game, and he believes that is an essential element to keeping defenses honest.
“I feel like if you’re not aggressive then you can’t do anything,” he said after the game.
Whether McCulley will start the rest of the season is anyone’s guess at this point, but it certainly sounds like he will continue in that role at least in the near term.
“We really truly don’t know,” Allen said. “The other guys are truly week to week. We’ll evaluate and see where they’re at. But right now, in my mind, he’s the guy. He’s (McCulley) by far the healthiest and gives us the best chance.
“The other guys are nursing injuries and trying to get healthy. And that’s why even with Jack he didn’t make the trip. We just had him stay home so he could keep rehabbing. We got more out of that than him just standing here on the sidelines.
“Whoever’s the healthiest and gives us the best chance to win, that’s who will be our quarterback.”
Right now that guy is McCulley, the kid who is still just figuring things out, and taking souvenirs.
He collected the ball from his first career touchdown pass from the staff.
But when asked what he thought about that play and getting the ball, he sounded like a veteran.
“It was cool but I want the win more,” McCulley said.
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