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A Strong "Hunch"

This article originally appeared in the early November 2013 issue of Inside Indiana Magazine. To subscribe, call 800-524-9527 today.

Ask any fan or analyst for their impressions of the Hoosiers’ offense these days, and the first thought that comes to mind is passing. Over the past eight years, IU has been known as an explosive passing team that can hurt opponents through the air and is a threat to score a touchdown on every snap.

Two of IU’s top five all-time passers played for IU in the past decade with Ben Chappell throwing for 7,251 yards from 2007-10 and Kellen Lewis throwing for 6,395 yards from 2006-2008. In terms of single-season passing yards, IU’s top four passing seasons have been recorded since 2007, including the fourth-best season in Hoosier history posted last season by Cam Coffman, the third-string QB for IU this year.

When it comes to touchdown passes, Lewis, IU’s career record holder, threw for 48 TDs in less than two full years as a starter, and Ben Chappell tossed 45 TDs in his Hoosier career. Blake Powers, IU’s starter during the 2005 season, sits tied for eighth on the all-time list with 23 TD tosses, 22 of which came during the 2005 season alone. Current starter Nate Sudfeld is making his assault on the record books, having already moved into the top 10 in single-season TD passes by the midway point of his sophomore season. He’s also poised to challenge IU’s single-season record in passing yards and attempts.

Considering the way IU throws the football, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Sudfeld could approach a single-game record for passing yards (currently held by Chappell, who threw for 480 yards vs. Michigan in 2010). Another record that would certainly seem to be in play would be the single-game TD pass record, although that mark isn’t held by anyone who has donned the cream and crimson in recent years. It isn’t even held by anyone who ever wore a facemask on their IU helmet.

Three players -- Lewis, Tim Clifford and Jay Rodgers -- have thrown five TD passes in a game, and 11 players have tossed for four touchdowns in a single game. Sudfeld has turned that trick twice this season alone, and every Saturday gives him an opportunity to make history.

His target, the current single-game record holder, isn’t a household name for IU fans, but during World War II, Bob Hoernschemeyer (pronounced HUNCH-meyer) was the catalyst for a team that knew how to put up big numbers and played despite an ever-changing landscape. Hoernschemeyer threw six TD passes in a single game during the 1943 season to lead IU to a 54-13 win over Nebraska, a number that made up nearly half of his total for that year.

Hoernschemeyer’s Hoosiers played a much different brand of football than IU fans are used to today, but for one brilliant season--and one extraordinary afternoon-- Hoernschemeyer was the most explosive passer in IU history.

Nate Sudfeld has put up impressive numbers, but he hasn't come close to Hoernschemeyer's TD record.

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Indiana football in 1943 was in a state of flux, just like every other program in the country. World War II had changed everything, and IU’s roster was a stark reflection of that fact. When head coach Bo McMillin opened camp that September, he almost had to use a program to figure out who was on his own team. With nearly every able-bodied man headed to Europe or Japan, McMillin was left with an inexperienced, depleted roster. Nine of the 11 starters from IU’s 1942 squad -- remember, back then players played both offense and defense -- were gone after graduating or heading off to war. That left Indiana with a lot of unanswered questions as its first game approached vs. Miami (Ohio) in mid-September.

The two returning players, End Pete Pihos and Center John Tavener, were expected to be leaders for the squad, but nobody really knew what to expect from the team considering its inexperience.

“Today’s performance will go down in Indiana football history as either a very sad or a very good performance by the first really war-riddled cream and crimson 11 since Pearl Harbor,” the Indiana Daily Student wrote Sept. 18, 1943. “The gallant Bomen go into the football wards today as an un-tried, outweighed and outseasoned squad. Nine of the starting lineup will be boys who will be making their first appearance in the college football picture.”

Among those nine new starters was an 17-year-old freshman by the name of Bob Hoernschemeyer, a 6-foot, 185-pound halfback from Elder High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hoernschemeyer was a triple-threat player on the gridiron for Elder, and he was a triple-threat for the school in other ways. Besides dominating on the football field, Hoernschemeyer also played for the basketball team and honed his skills on the baseball diamond.

For as good as he was as a football player, he might have been even better at baseball. Following his senior season at Elder, he signed on to play with the American Legion club in Cincinnati. There he drew the attention of the New York Yankees, who tried to ink him to a pro contract.

Hoernschemeyer, however, turned the Yankees down, and instead he headed to Indiana. Attending college might keep Hoernschemeyer out of the military longer, and IU needed the help. Hoernschemeyer’s versatility would be an immediate asset. Besides his talent as a runner and a thrower, Hoernschemeyer also was a quality punter who had once recorded an 88-yard punt during his days at Elder.

The man nicknamed “Hunchy” would enjoy a solid college debut. Despite the fact Miami (Ohio) was stocked with players who were Naval training cadets and Marines, Indiana’s fight made up for its lack of strength. The two teams battled to a 7-7 tie, and Hoernschemeyer raised more than a few eyebrows with his passing skills.

Hoernschemeyer was a 17-year-old freshman when he showed up on the Bloomington campus.

“Hoernschemeyer, as left halfback, came forth with some of the longest and most accurate passes that have yet been seen in the Memorial Bowl,” the [I]IDS[/I] wrote.

Hoernschemeyer ran in the Hoosiers’ only score of the day, and he booted the extra point as well to give IU the tie.

On Sept. 25, Hoernschemeyer’s 18th birthday, he nearly helped Indiana pull off an upset. The Hoosiers traveled to Evanston to take on a favored Northwestern squad that featured future Hall-of-Fame QB Otto Graham. The Wildcats also benefitted from the fact the Navy had a training base at Northwestern, and a number of players from other schools enrolled at NU to train and play football. Indiana, by the way, hosted an Army training facility in Bloomington, but a ruling from the War Department decreed that Army cadets were banned from playing college football, leaving IU with quality talent on the campus that was untouchable.

Indiana’s talent level wasn’t anywhere near what Northwestern brought to the gridiron, but IU hung tough. It’s a story that is familiar to Hoosier fans these days. IU’s offensive numbers were impressive as the team outgained Northwestern 222-90, posted 12 first downs vs. NU’s two and completed eight passes vs. the Wildcats’ four. But when it came to cracking the end zone, IU struggled. Northwestern walked away with a 14-6 win, one that saw Hoernschemeyer roll up the bulk of the offense. He completed 6-of-13 passes for 102 yards, and he scored IU’s only touchdown on a rush, one of his 40 carries on the day.

The good news was Hoernschemeyer’s passing performance in front of the Chicago media earned him a new nickname: “Bomber.” The bad news was Hoernschemeyer suffered an injury to his left calf muscle, which knocked him out of the game late and kept the Hoosiers from mounting a comeback.

The leg kept Hoernschemeyer out of practice for the next week as the Hoosiers prepped to take on Wabash College, but it was hoped he would be ready to take on the Cavemen. When gameday rolled around, McMillin limited Hoernschemeyer, believing he had enough to beat Wabash without his talented freshman.

It turned out he was right. Indiana whipped the Cavemen 52-0, the third-highest point total for an IU team at Memorial Stadium to that point. Hoernschemeyer’s backup, Ed Schienbein, was the star on offense for Indiana.

Schienbein’s day in the spotlight lasted just that -- one day. In a sign of the times, three days after leading IU to the blowout win over Wabash, Schienbein was put through his Army physical, and he was classified as 1-A. His days in Bloomington were numbered. Teammate Gene Battreal, a freshman guard, was classified as 1-A, as well, robbing the already-thin Hoosiers of another body. Freshman Don Dwyer was close to leaving for the Coast Guard, and Tavener was recovering from a wrenched leg and shoulder. Hoernschemeyer’s injury was getting better, but there was no guarantee early in the week that he would be ready to take on Nebraska the next Saturday.

Hoernschemeyer, shown here at far left during the 1944 season, torched Nebraska for six TD passes to set a record that still stands.

The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, had troubles of their own. The war had depleted their roster, as well, and they faced the same pain as IU when it came to talent on campus. An Army training facility was in Lincoln, but like Indiana, Nebraska was barred from access to the cadets, leaving the Cornhuskers scrambling for bodies. A week prior to its battle with Indiana, Nebraska was crushed by Minnesota 54-0, leaving observers wondering what exactly they were going to see when IU traveled to Lincoln. Nebraska wasn’t very good, and Indiana wasn’t very healthy.

Not many thought they were going to watch anything special. Instead, those in attendance watched history.

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With athletes at a premium, Nebraska turned to a gimmick on offense in an effort to level the playing field. Cornhuskers head coach Adolph Lewandowski followed the lead of the University of Missouri and utilized the “Split T” formation on offense that saw the space between each offensive lineman double. That spread the offensive line some 10-16 yards across the field instead of the usual 5-8 yards, in turn spreading the opposing defense. Using the traditional T-Formation backfield, the offense was given more room to run while forcing the defense to cover more ground.

The offense, which was a precursor to the Wishbone and Veer formations that would come to dominate college football in the future, wasn’t quite polished at Nebraska, and the team was still learning the attack. That didn’t mean IU was comfortable heading to Lincoln. In a time when scouting film was difficult to come by, McMillin could only hope that his team would be ready to face the unorthodox offense.

The good news for IU as it left Bloomington Thursday afternoon was that Hoernschemeyer was on the team train. With so many other injuries and player attrition, McMillin came up with a plan that might save some of the wear and tear on his team. Instead of using the passing game to complement the rushing attack, McMillin would flip the script. Pass blocking is less grueling than run blocking, and McMillin was certain Hoernschemeyer’s arm could do the damage needed to beat the Cornhuskers.

McMillin was right.

But Hoernschemeyer set up IU’s first score of the game not with his arm but with his legs. Fielding a Nebraska punt at the Indiana 17-yard line, Hoernschemeyer returned the kick 20 yards to the 37. The Hoosiers pounded the ball on the ground, and FB Jim Allerdice scored on a one-yard run to put IU up 7-0. Nebraska then turned the ball over when Pihos recovered a Cornhuskers fumble on the NU 33. Hoernschemeyer quickly found End Don Mangold with a long pass, and Mangold beat Nebraska’s Kenneth Swanson to the end zone to put Indiana up 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.

Hoernschemeyer not only was IU's best passer, but he was IU's punter and rushed for 515 yards in 1943.

Swanson was Hoernschemeyer’s target again on IU’s next possession, and this time it was Schienbein who beat him for another score to put IU up 21-0. Later in the period Hoernschemeyer tossed a third scoring strike when he found Frank Torak in the end zone. Tavener missed the extra point, and IU went into the break up 27-0.

McMillin didn’t let off the gas. Looking to build some confidence in his players, he planned to keep attacking. Nebraska helped keep IU’s offense on track by scoring a touchdown on its first possession of the second half, but a comeback wasn’t in the cards. Taking over at its own 25-yard line, Indiana marched down the field behind Hoernschemeyer’s running and passing. He rolled up enough yards on the ground to keep Nebraska honest, and after taking IU to the 3-yard line, Hoernschemeyer found Torak with another scoring toss to push the lead back to 34-7.

The Cornhuskers refused to go away. A long TD pass from QB Ted Kenfield to RB William Miller gave Nebraska its second touchdown, but the Huskers missed the extra point to keep the score at 34-13. IU answered on the ground, but Hoernschemeyer set up the score with a pass to Pihos on the Nebraska 13. Mangold then took a handoff and swung to the left behind a trio of blockers before cutting back and heading into the end zone untouched. Tavener added the extra point to put Indiana up 41-13.

Pihos was the next to benefit from “Bomb-sight Bob,” this time hauling in a Hoernschemeyer pass and barely avoiding a huge collision with the goal post to score. Hoernschemeyer’s final TD pass came late in the game when he again found Mangold with a scoring toss to cap the scoring.

Six different Hoosiers scored touchdowns in IU’s 54-13 win over Nebraska, and Mangold led the way with three scores. The final marked the most lopsided win for an opponent at the Cornhuskers’ Memorial Stadium since the team had moved into the facility in 1923.

Legendary Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, the man who created the Major League Baseball All-Star game and the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament, was on hand for the game and was blown away by what he saw.

“Bob Hoernschemeyer, 17-year-old freshman halfback who is as good as his name is long, today led Indiana to a 54 to 13 victory over Nebraska,” Ward wrote, getting Hoernschemeyer’s age wrong. “Today’s game might have been a fairly even contest had it not been for the presence of Hoernschemeyer in the Indiana backfield. He put on one of the most brilliant individual performances ever seen in Lincoln.”

Actually, Hoernschemeyer had put on the most brilliant performance in terms of numbers of any freshman in college football history to that point and for years to come. Hoernschemeyer completed 14-of-18 passes for a whopping 345 yards, and he added 113 yards on the ground on 20 carries. His 458 yards of total offense set an NCAA record for freshmen, a mark that would stand for 43 years. It would remain the IU single-game record for freshmen until 1998, when a kid named Antwaan Randle El totaled 467 yards vs. Western Michigan.

Hoernschemeyer spent two years in the All-American Football Conference, including a season with the Brooklyn Doodgers, when he first started playing pro football.

Hoernschemeyer’s outing caught the attention of the entire country, but nowhere was the coverage prouder than in Bloomington.

“That boy with the long name, Bob Hoernschemeyer, cut a few more sensational capers as he set up six of the Crimson touchdown thrusts,” the [I][i]IDS[/i][/I] wrote. “’The Bomber’ cocked his arm and showered passes all over the field and occasionally would take off like a frightened rabbit for the pay-dirt territory.”

The Bloomington World-Telephone was just as effusive with its praise.

“Fightin’ Hoosier Hoernschemeyer virtually was in world series form in the matter of pitching,” the paper wrote. “He shot passes from miscellaneous angles and positions. Exactly a half-dozen of his passes scudded through the air like rifle bullets for touchdowns. Everybody seemed to agree that this was a pretty good afternoon’s work for ‘Hunchy.’ “

In fact, Hoernschemeyer’s huge game pushed him to heights unseen by IU football players. He moved from second to first place in the NCAA’s total offense category with 886 yards.

Hoernschemeyer followed up his massive week with a rough outing vs. Iowa, but he still managed to make his presence felt. He completed just 8-of-20 passes for 92 yards, and he rushed 29 times for a net of eight yards. But Hoernschemeyer also scored IU’s only touchdown of the day in the Hoosier’s 7-7 tie, intercepting a Hawkeye pass on the first play of the second quarter and returning the pick 35 yards for a score.

The quiet performance, by the way, was met with some relief from some sports editors. The Burlington (Iowa) Hawk-eye Gazette celebrated Hoernschemeyer’s struggles, saying the game “secretly brings great rejoicing to sports headline writers who have been trying all season, without success, to squeeze Hunchy’s name into any of the typefaces back in the composing room.”

By the time Wisconsin headed to Bloomington Oct. 23 for IU’s Homecoming game, Hoernschemeyer was the player every team had to account for on every play. He was averaging 5.1 yards of total offense per play, and he was dominating the nation’s passing yardage category. He completed 33-of-77 passes for 663 yards, 341 yards more than his nearest competitor. Meanwhile, he had rushed for 323 yards on 115 attempts, 12th-best in the nation.

Hoernschemeyer later put together a quality career in the NFL with the Detroit Lions.

The Badgers came into the game crippled after having five players called to active duty by the Navy, and their disarray showed. IU whipped UW 34-0 with Pihos doing most of the damage, although Hoernschemeyer threw for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the victory. The next week vs. Ohio State he threw two TD passes, including the game-winner in the closing minute, to push IU to a 20-14 win over the Buckeyes in front of a crowd of 25,458 in Columbus. That effort erased an Ohio State comeback that saw OSU overcome a 13-0 deficit in the second half. Hoernschemeyer finished with 179 yards passing.

After that outing, however, Hoernschemeyer and the Hoosiers cooled off. On a trip to Ann Arbor the next week, he was held to 4-of-16 passing for 48 yards and a touchdown vs. Michigan, and he threw a pick-six in the 23-6 defeat. One week later, on Nov. 13, Indiana was nearly shutout by Great Lakes Naval Base with the Blue Jackets winning 21-7. Hoernschemeyer went 9-of-17 passing for 95 yards, and the only highlight came on Hoernschemeyer’s TD toss to Pihos in the final 20 seconds of the game.

The final game of the season came in Bloomington at the annual Old Oaken Bucket Game vs. Purdue. The Boilermakers were enjoying their best season in years, and they came to play. In front of a crowd of 15,000 at Jordan Field, Purdue bent and bent and bent, but it never broke. IU drove inside the Boilermaker 5-yard line three times, but the Boilers held. Indiana dominated the stats, rolling up 245 total yards, but Purdue was the only squad to crack the end zone. Hoernschemeyer completed 9-of-15 passes for 132 yards, but he didn’t throw a TD pass and was intercepted three times in the 7-0 loss.

Hoernschemeyer was named third-team All-American after the season and led the nation in total offense, a feat few freshmen have matched in college football history. He also was named first-team All-Big Ten and earned a spot in the annual East-West Shrine Game.

He finished the year 70-of-155 passing for 1,136 yards and 13 touchdowns. His yardage record would stand until 1964 when Richie Badar threw for 1,571 yards, and his 13 TD passes in a season was the IU single-season record until Tim Clifford matched it in 1979 and 1980. It was finally broken by Steve Bradley in 1983.

Hoernschemeyer enlisted in the Navy following the 1943 season, but he was granted a special order discharge to return to IU in the fall of 1944. He threw for 727 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore, and he helped IU to a 7-3 mark, including Indiana’s first season with four conference wins. Following the season, Hoernschemeyer enrolled at the the United States Naval Academy for the 1945 campaign.

“Hunchy” helped Navy to a 9-0 start, but he was injured for four games and missed the season-ending loss to Army in a game that pitted the No.2-ranked Midshipmen against the top-ranked Black Knights. He threw for 368 yards on 27-of-58 passing and four touchdowns in what would prove to be his final season.

Hoernschemeyer flunked out of the Naval Academy in February of 1946 along with former IU teammate George Sundheim, and neither applied for re-examination when given the opportunity.

“Apparently they have no particular interest in becoming naval officers,” a spokesman said.

Hoernschemeyer did find himself playing for McMillin once again when he landed on the College All-Star team to battle the NFL-champion Los Angeles Rams in Chicago. He must have liked what he saw in the Windy City because shortly after the game, a 16-0 win for the College All-Stars, Hoernschemeyer signed with the new Chicago Rockets of the All-America Football Conference. He stuck in Chicago through that team’s name change from the Rockets to the Hornets, and he later played with the AAFC’s Brooklyn Dodgers.

When the league merged with the NFL in 1950, Hoernschemeyer was picked up by the Detroit Lions. There he enjoyed a successful NFL career, lasting for six years. He earned two trips to the Pro Bowl and led the Lions in rushing four straight seasons. He won NFL championships with the Lions in 1952 and 1953, and he was on Detroit’s 1954 runner-up squad. He is one of just three players in NFL history--one of the others is former IU star George Taliaferro--to gain more than 1,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards receiving and 1,000 yards rushing in a career. The NFL, however, doesn’t recognize AAFC stats, so both Hoernschemeyer and Taliaferro aren’t included in the NFL’s official record book when it comes to the triple-quadruple.

Hoernschemeyer’s career ended after the 1955 season, and he still holds the Lions record for the longest rushing play from scrimmage -- a 96-yard TD romp Nov. 23, 1950 vs. the New York Yankees. He lived in Detroit for most of the rest of his life, passing away following a two-year battle with cancer June 18, 1980. He was just 52 years old.

He was named to the IU Athletics Hall of Fame in the Hall’s third class in 1984, and his top single-game passing performance of 345 yards still sits him just outside the top 10 outings in Hoosier history. His legendary game vs. Nebraska still sits fourth on IU’s list of most total offense in a game, and Hoernschemeyer is the only player in Indiana’s top 10 who played prior to 1997. Sudfeld’s production over the past two years finally knocked Hoernschemeyer out of the 10th spot on IU’s list of career TD passes, ending a 69-year run on the list.

Even as IU’s pass-happy offense continues to chip away at Hoernschemeyer’s legacy, his effort one fall day in 1943 remains the standard to which all IU quarterbacks aspire.

Ken Bikoff can be reached via email at kbikoff@insideiu.com. He hopes everyone is having a great Thanksgiving.

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