By Dustin Dopirak
Joe Novak remembers being stopped in the team hotel in Tucson, Ariz., by a woman who told him she was a member of the Indiana University Board of Trustees. Novak, the Hoosiers defensive coordinator at the time, had just coached his unit to a shutout and a 24-0 win over Baylor in the 1991 Copper Bowl, and she was in front of him in line to check out.
“She turned around and said,’ You’re one of the coaches, aren’t you?’” Novak said. “I said, ‘Yes I am.’ She said, ‘I’m on the board of trustees. I want you to know how important that game was to Indiana University. To come out here on national TV and play so well.’ She just raved about how important that game was to Indiana University.”
Novak generally understood the value of athletic performance to the perception of the university, but he had no reason to expect the win to take on the significance in IU football history that it has. The Hoosiers were just three years removed from their last bowl victory and were playing in their fifth bowl game in six seasons. They couldn’t call themselves a powerhouse, but under then coach Bill Mallory they’d established themselves as a pest for the Big Ten’s elite programs and a winning program that expected to still be playing around the holidays. Their bowl bids weren’t the most prestigious, but they were bowl bids all the same.
But that night — New Year’s Eve, 1991 — remains the last time that an Indiana football team felt the satisfaction of victory after a bowl game.
The Hoosiers’ suffering in between is well-document. After a loss to Virginia Tech in the 1993 Independence Bowl, they went 14 years without a bowl appearance, let alone a win. They reached the Insight Bowl in 2007, lost to Oklahoma State there, then suffered another eight-year postseason drought. They’ve been to three bowls since 2015 and lost all three by a combined total of six points.
So 29 years later, the 1991 Copper Bowl champions still have a place in Indiana history — one they can’t wait to surrender. They see Saturday’s Outback Bowl, in which the No. 11 Hoosiers play Ole Miss, as the best opportunity so far to end the drought.
“It’s not a record that any of us want to keep, having won the last bowl game,” said Greg Farrall, a starting linebacker on the 1991 team. “It’s not like the undefeated Miami Dolphins where they want to keep that and they like cigars. We certainly want to win bowl games.”
Every Indiana team since that one has been denied the simple joy of both winning enough to play into December, and then ending the season with a win. The Hoosiers that did it last know there’s something profound about that feeling, and they want the 2020 team to know what it’s like.
“It’s just very satisfying,” said Mark Hagen, then a linebacker and now the defensive line coach at Texas. “It sends you out the right way with a W, and it sets the tone for the next season for the guys that are coming back and returning. It’s really the opening statement of the next season. It was my final game, not just at Indiana, but in my football career, and it was just a great way to go out. And it’s a huge springboard for the guys that returned.”
Like the 2020 Hoosiers, the 1991 squad carried a close bowl loss to an SEC team with them from the previous season. They’d lost the 1990 Peach Bowl 27-23 to Auburn thanks to a 1-yard touchdown run by Tigers quarterback Stan White with 39 seconds left to go in the game.
“We really had a chip on our shoulder because we had them,” Farrall said. “Stan White on a boot pass basically scampered into the corner and won the game, and that really hurt. We had that game and we had beaten almighty Auburn, much like what happened against Tennessee in the Gator Bowl last year.”
The Hoosiers, especially those on the defensive end, also felt slighted because the pre game talk appeared to be centered on Baylor’s potent offense and its dominant defensive tackle Santana Dotson, an All-American who would spend 10 years in the NFL and win a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. Indiana had weapons on the offensive end in quarterback Trent Green and running back Vaughn Dunbar but no one seemed to have much to say about the Indiana defense which gave up just 18.7 points per game that season.
“We felt our defense was really humming,” linebacker Paul Williams said. “We thought that was a championship-quality defense. And that Baylor offense came in showing some arrogance. They were shunning us at some of the bowl events, and that made us angry and we were coming into that game humming.”
The Bears ran a split-back veer option led by quarterback J.J. Joe and running back David Mims. The Bears averaged 236.7 yards per game on the ground and Joe threw for over 1,800, making them a tough scout. Though option football was prevalent in the 80s and early 90s in the Big 8 and Southwest Conference, the Hoosiers didn’t see it that much in the Big Ten at the time.
Indiana’s defenders had seen a lot of it in high school, however, and had dealt with Kentucky running the option out of an I-formation under Bill Curry. In six weeks of bowl preparation, Novak got them locked into playing assignment football.
“We kept our game-plan very, very simple so they could execute,” Novak said. “It was as close to a perfectly played game as you could have. They just executed what we wanted them to do so well.”
The Hoosiers held the Bears to just 269 yards of total offense with just 131 coming on the ground. Joe finished with -22 yards on eight carries and completed 10 of 26 passes for 131 yards and an interception. In the third quarter on the Bears’ best drive of the game, they reached the Indiana 5-yard line before fumbling the ball into the end zone where IU safety Damon Watts fell on the ball.
“Shutting them out, for sure, was a mission,” Farrall said. “It always is when you start a game. But once we could feel it, once we got in the third quarter, we were like, ‘You know what? We’re not gonna let these guys score. It was kind of a statement for the Indiana program.”
But after that, the Hoosiers didn’t do enough to follow up on it. They missed a bowl game in 1992 after starting the season 5-3 and posted winning seasons in 1993 and 1994 but then went 13 years without one.
“That’s kind of a travesty,” Williams said.
But that group believes in this Indiana team. They see more speed, more skill, and more power up front than they’ve seen in years, and they see a coach in Tom Allen who reminds them of Mallory in all the best ways.
“He was a father figure to a lot of us,” Williams said of Mallory. “As time as gone, you get a greater appreciation for the leadership he showed. When I watch this team on TV, I see that in coach Allen. When coach Allen speaks, he makes you want to run through the TV. That’s Bill Mallory all the way.”
Like most Indiana fans, the 1991 team believes the 2020 team deserved better from the College Football Playoff selection committee, and that the Hoosiers belonged in the Fiesta Bowl or somewhere else in the New Year’s Six. But knowing the emotional value of winning a bowl game — any bowl game — they still view the Outback Bowl as a landmark moment for the program and can sense that the current Hoosiers see it that way as well.
“Honestly I feel sorry for Ole Miss a little bit,” Farrall said. “They drew a really tough card here. You’ve got a really pissed off team. We were always told if you beat Michigan and Penn State and Wisconsin and you’re close to beating Ohio State, you will be rewarded. My personal opinion is they weren’t. But it is what it is. You have to earn that respect. This team knows how to do that. They’re going to win, they’re going to take the trophy home, they’re going to recruit the hell out of Tampa and they’re going to be a better team. No one’s going to complain about it, we’re just going to go kick their ass.”
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