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My Two Cents: Fluke or Future? That's the Biggest Question After Indiana's 2021 Season

After two winning seasons, everything fell apart in 2021 for Indiana's football program, and it ended with a thud in a 44-7 loss to Purdue on the final day of the season. Was this year a fluke, or the signs of what's to come in the future?
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Watching the recording of the Indiana-Purdue football game on Sunday morning, I couldn't help but think that I had seen this game before. Turns out, I had.

Those black-and-gold jersey could have said Ohio State or Rutgers or Michigan or Minnesota on them just as easily, and it would have all been the same. Sadly, that's been the story of Indiana's brutal 2021 season. It got bad, stayed bad and nothing ever changed. It never got better, and there's plenty of blame to go around. It's been one of the worst seasons in Indiana football history, and that's saying a lot.

Purdue got the Old Oaken Bucket back on Saturday, winning 44-7 in a game as ugly and as lopsided as the score indicates. Outside of their first possession — and much more on that in a minute — Indiana was never in this game.

Just like last week. And the week before. And the week before that. On and on, ad nauseam.

Or just nauseous?

The season ends with Indiana having a 2-10 overall record and, even worse, an 0-9 whitewash in the Big Ten. And this all happened despite enormous expectations coming into the year after going 14-5 in the past two regular seasons, and 11-5 in the Big Ten.

It has to be said, of course, that this is a massive step backward for a program that has been on the rise since the start of 2019. But it also needs to be said, and I've been arguing this on social media for a year now, what's happened here in 2021 has NOTHING to do with the successes of 2019 and 2020.

Those years were not flukes. Indiana was well coached in those two years, and their players performed at a high level. The whiners — and you know who are — try to use the excuse that Indiana beat Michigan and Penn State and Michigan State and Wisconsin when they were down, but they all still had rosters full of 4-star and 5-star players.

Indiana won all those games fair and square. And just because Indiana has struggled this year doesn't mean that you have a right to take an eraser to those seasons. They happened, they were real, and Indiana was a success.

This season? It happened, too. And Indiana was an abject failure.

Why? There are many reasons, of course, The most obvious issue, of course, were all the injuries. Indiana had 18 season-ending injuries this year, plus 12 others who missed multiple games. There have also been eight players now to entered the transfer portal since fall camp began. 

That's a lot of attrition. That's not meant to be an excuse, because it's a fact, and it can't be disputed. You might try to argue that everyone has injuries, but not one Big Ten team played with a fourth string quarterback and fourth-string running backs all year. It's real, and legit.

But it's not the only issue. This team, quite frankly, was poorly coached as well this year. What we learned this year was that Kalen DeBoer and Kane Wommack were really good coordinators who got the best out of their respective units. Offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan is no DeBoer, and the offensive numbers bear that out.

And defensive coordinator Charlton Warren? It's his first year, so he gets a pass, but this defense wasn't very good either, and that's with a veteran starting lineup. Decisions that were made to protect a bunch of backup cornerbacks turned out to blow up in their face. This defense had no identity — other than Micah McFadden being a beast at middle linebacker —and they gave up too many yards and too many points, too.

Allen can't deflect blame either, because, as he often says, ''the buck stops here,'' He's exactly right. His decision to plaster the football facility with "What have you done to win the Big Ten today?'' posters clearly backfired, because I do think these players got a little full of themselves.

McFadden even said so last week that he didn't think the Hoosiers worked hard enough in fall camp. They were a little overconfident, and got off to a slow start. They had Cincinnati — who's still undefeated, remember — beat, but that brutal targeting call on McFadden and Baldwin's fumble at the 2-yard line that would have put them ahead in the fourth quarter. Winning that game might have changed a lot.

What was most frustrating was that every week was just the same old story over and over.

For instance, in the Ohio State game, Indiana scored a touchdown on its first drive — and lost 54-7.

Two weeks later, Indiana scored a touchdown in the second quarter against Michigan and then punted six times in a row, never scoring again in a 29-7 loss.

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The following week at home against Rutgers, Indiana lost a fumble on the first play of the game then capped a great drive with a missed field goal — and proceeded to lose 38-3. 

They scored on their first possession against Minnesota too last week, a beautiful 14-play, 92-yard drive that ended with a touchdown. They wouldn't score again until there were 22 seconds left in the game and lost 35-14.

How could they be so good on first drives, but then do absolutely nothing the rest of the game? It was unwatchable.

Sheridan was the first to pay the price for this disaster. He was fired by Allen on Sunday morning, and Allen even took a $200,000 pay cut for the next four years to accommodate the firing and the hiring of a new coordinator.

Is is fair? I suppose so, because it looked so ugly for so long this year, and there was no sign of hope that it could improve. But let me say this about Nick Sheridan. We cannot forget that he was the offensive coordinator last year too, and through five games that Michael Penix Jr. was healthy, Indiana had the No. 1-ranked passing offense in the Big Ten and were No. 4 overall in total offense.

That was Nick Sheridan's offense, too.

Sheridan is losing his job in large part because Indiana couldn't keep its quarterbacks healthy. When Penix and Jack Tuttle went down, the Hoosiers had a real problem because Dexter Williams, the third-string quarterback in the spring, tore his ACL. The next man up was true freshman Donaven McCulley, who had just arrived in June. You don't learn a college offense in two or three months, and he was not prepared to operate Indiana's playbook.

Most fans who haven't played football before don't really understand this modern-day run-pass option offense. It's incumbent that quarterbacks make the correct split-second decision to either hand off the ball or pull it back and throw. McCulley wasn't ready for that.

I asked Allen and Sheridan both about that a few weeks ago, because I was getting tired of seeing all these runs up the middle, and getting more tired of unknowing fans complaining about it.

Those aren't all run calls, I asked. Of course not, they both responded. Sheridan danced around it, always taking the blame himself for all these troubles instead of blaming his young quarterback.

Allen was more open, especially after the Minnesota game, when he said that there were too many times during McCulley's five weeks of action where he should have been throwing when he ran, and vice versa. That's inexperience. And that's not Sheridan calling too many running plays, it's the quarterback not picking the right option. Trust me, the tight ends and wide receivers were frustrated too, because they would be open on many plays, but the quarterback would make the wrong reads.

Of course, the coaches are to blame for that for not preparing them better during the week, and it all adds up. 

And now we've come to this. As I've argued, 2019 and 2020 were not flukes. The optimist in me says I hope 2021 is the fluke, the outlier season in a continued overall improvement of this program, which is historically horrible.

The 2022 season can't look anything like this. Not even close. Hiring a new offensive coordinator will probably the most important decision of Allen's coaching career. He got it right three years ago when he hired DeBoer, someone he didn't know but had a fantastic resume. He got it wrong promoting from within with Sheridan, thinking he could plug-and-play and run the same offense. It didn't work. Honestly, it failed.

Indiana is a desired destination these days, because the athletic department has made the financial commitment to this football program, something that's really only happened in the past decade or so. There will be money there to hire the best OC available. Indiana needs that.

Thankfully, this 2021 season is over. Now comes the offseason, which I can guarantee will be much more exciting. Allen has to prove that 2021 was a fluke.

Because if it's just the start of what the future will look just like, all this momentum that was built up the past two years disappear for good. Most ''fans'' already have bailed.

Next year, there aren't three top-five teams on the schedule in the first five weeks, so that won't be an issue again. 

It's going to be interesting to see where the Hoosiers go from here. Sheridan isn't the only coach who won't survive this, if I had to guess. And you people who say Allen should be fired? Go away. That is not happening. He's the right guy for this job, and 2019-20 proved that. 

Now he needs to prove he can get back there.