BLOOMINGTON — The football tucked under Grant Gremel’s right arm might as well have been glued there, a personal keepsake souvenir from a game that wasn’t a keeper for the rest of Hoosier Football Nation.
“This is my touchdown ball,” Gremel said as he stood on the nearly empty Memorial Stadium field Saturday evening after Indiana was dismantled by Minnesota, 35-14, in its final home game of the 2021 season.
Dropping to 2-9 and winless in the Big Ten at 0-8, for IU the contest to celebrate 35 players on Senior Day, offered little to celebrate.
A walk-on sophomore from Noblesville, Gremel is the Hoosiers’ fourth-string quarterback. But between injuries and relentless pressure on freshman Donavan McCulley, both from the Golden Gophers (7-4) and being forced into a role he may not be quite ready for, Gremel, as coach Tom Allen put it, was “The Last Man Standing.”
With 22 seconds left, with a foregone-conclusion result, Gremel completed a 29-yard touchdown pass to Malachi Holt-Bennett for a ray of sunshine through the darkness, both of the night and IU’s circumstances.
“I don’t believe in pressure,” Gremel said of being thrown into games with minimal preparation or warm-up. “It’s all a mindset. Naturally, I’m kind of a poised person. I try to stay calm.”
Going into this coming Saturday’s Old Oaken Bucket rivalry game at Purdue, the Hoosiers have a seven-game losing streak. With Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle injured and McCulley struggling in his last two outings, Gremel may have earned more quarterback time in Allen’s eyes.
“He looks comfortable,” Allen said. “He’s improved a lot. The bottom line is if you make plays, we’ll put you in there.”
McCulley rushed for 72 yards and gave IU a brief, 7-0 lead on an 11-yard TD run in the first quarter, but seemed hesitant to pass and finished just 3-for-7 through the air for 17 yards.
In an effort to get the ball to tight end Peyton Hendershot and receiver Ty Fryfogle, Allen called running plays for them, with limited success.
Hendershot, a 6-foot-4, 254-pound senior, said he carried the ball in high school. These plays, appropriately enough, were named “Horse.”
“I just feel natural with the ball in my hands,” he said.
Handoffs were the only ways he got it, though. Hendershot had zero receptions against Minnesota. A.J. Barner was IU’s leading receiver with three catches for 31 yards.
The Gremel-Holt-Bennett connection was a rare piece of Indiana good fortune. The defense looked wobbly. On the game’s first series, the Golden Gophers, powered by running back Ky Thomas (111 yards), held the ball for 17 plays, converted four third downs, yet stalled on the 7-yard-line. A blip.
However, after McCulley’s touchdown, Minnesota ran off 35 straight points. The Gophers collected 206 yards rushing and 196 yards passing. Chris Autman-Bell caught two touchdown passes from Tanner Morgan.
The Hoosiers didn’t have enough going, offensively or defensively, to rouse the fans, to mount charges or to prevent Minnesota’s long drives.
“Not good enough,” Allen said. “Not to our standard. And it’s not been that way for most of the season.”
McCulley, who was expected to redshirt this season before becoming the starter because of injuries, has shown skill throwing and running, but chose to run much more often. Allen said he must do both to be the dual threat he can be.
“Dual threat means you do both,” Allen said.
The Hoosiers did not mount a damaging running game. Starting back Stephen Carr remained out with injury and the second-leading rusher, behind McCulley, was Gremel, with 23 yards on two carries late.
McCulley tossed two interceptions, perhaps contributing to him choosing the run over the pass on certain calls, but Allen doesn’t want him or the Indiana offense to become gun-shy.
“We’re not going to play scared,” Allen said, “and not going to play tentative. I wanted us to let it rip.”
Since Oct. 25, when IU was 2-2, the Hoosiers have mostly gotten ripped. They have been held to one touchdown or less four times (it would have been five except for the late Gremel throw) and have lost by at least three touchdowns five times.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Hendershot said.