BLOOMINGTON — Tom Allen opened his press conference Monday with news meant to underline Indiana's focus on the Old Oaken Bucket game.
The trophy up for grabs at Purdue at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday is all the Hoosiers have left to play for in a season that began with them ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in more than 50 years. So Allen provided some small flicker of hope that the Hoosiers (2-9, 0-8 in the Big Ten) could compete with the bowl-bound Boilermakers (7-4, 5-3) by saying that several of Indiana's injured players are making one last push to return to action.
Among the players he said have a chance to return are All-American cornerback Tiawan Mullen, starting running back Stephen Carr, backup linebacker James Miller, backup safety Josh Sanguinetti and quarterbacks Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle. All of them were out for Saturday's loss to Minnesota and several have been out for much longer, with Penix being on the shelf since Oct. 2 and Mullen having been mostly out since Sept. 25.
"Obviously it's our last week," Allen said. "It's now or never in that regard."
But it's difficult for Allen to keep the focus on the present, at least in a press conference setting, when so much of this season has already been lost and the Hoosiers face big questions as to how to rectify their problems. Whether they find a way to retain the Bucket or not — Purdue is a 15-point favorite — the Hoosiers will post their worst record since the 2011 team finished 1-11.
So Allen had to field and respond to questions about what went wrong and how exactly he has to fix everything about a program that appeared to be on the most positive of trajectories heading into this season.
Allen lamented the many injuries that have pushed the defense backward. Saturday's was the fifth game in their last six in which they have allowed at least 35 points.
"The depth has become a huge issue," Allen said. "I'm going to call it what it is, playing way too many snaps, which has led to even later in the game more fatigue, more mistakes. Just kind of wearing down physically and mentally."
Allen was reminded that when the season began, he felt good about the depth he had on defense, especially in the secondary where the Hoosiers have been hit the hardest.
But Allen pointed out that the injuries also hit the second and third string, so the Hoosiers had to dig even deeper for replacements when Mullen, fellow cornerback Reese Taylor and safety Devon Matthews went down. Along with Sanguinetti, the Hoosiers also lost cornerbacks Christopher Keys and Lem Watley-Neely and safety Bryson Bonds, young players who were expected to be backups, but also to be high enough on the depth chart to step up. Safety Jonathan Haynes, an Ole Miss transfer added early in fall camp, was injured in the preseason and was never fully healthy. Instead, the Hoosiers didn't have much at cornerback beyond starter Jaylin Williams and converted safety Noah Pierre, and have had to ride with them for most of the season's past month.
They also had issues at linebacker, where Allen's son Thomas and Miller both went down, leaving the Hoosiers with one proven backup in Aaron Casey behind starters Micah McFadden and Cam Jones. When Jones was ill for the Rutgers game on Nov. 13, the Hoosiers didn't have many options to take up his plays and had to rely overwhelmingly on McFadden and Casey.
"It's just kind of been one of those years," Allen said.
The injuries haven't been as extensive on offense, but the ones they had were targeted in the worst places. Penix and Tuttle being out thrust freshman Donaven McCulley into service, and Saturday's game was evidence that progress for a true freshman quarterback doesn't always come steady.
Allen was displeased after the game that the Hoosiers had thrown the ball so little with McCulley in the game. He ran the ball 16 times for 72 yards and a touchdowns against Minnesota but threw just seven passes, completing three for 17 yards. Allen believed at the time, and film confirmed, that McCulley too frequently made the wrong read on run-pass option plays, deciding to tuck and run in situations where he needed to throw the ball.
Allen eventually made the decision to bring in walk-on Grant Gremel, who threw for 60 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Allen then spent Sunday in the film room with McCulley and the offensive staff, going over what he saw and how to improve his reads.
McCulley is now Indiana's third-leading rusher with 137 yards on the season, but has completed just 42.7% of his passes.
"There's no question that there's a lot there for him to learn and grow through," Allen said. "Even with him out there when he's playing, this week we have to throw the football with him. We know that, he knows that, he needs to do that. He does it well in practice, he needs to do it well in the game. I know he can. But we got to get to that point where that's happening consistently on Saturdays. That's really all that matters."
Of course, nothing for Indiana has been happening consistently on Saturdays except for the fact that it has lost. The Hoosiers expected to be deep at a number of positions, quarterback among them, and haven't been. Regardless of what happens on Saturday — and regardless of what players decided to stay and which move on — Allen and his staff have to re-evaluate what they have at each position group.
"We're going to have to do it as we go through, Allen said. "When the season ends, kind of rebuild each room, try to be able to go through and look at it this way, be able to maximize our guys, who we have, who is coming back, be able to address the needs accordingly. That's the challenge and the opportunity we have in front of us."
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana football: Trying to focus on Bucket game but rebuild is coming
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