With 8:50 remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter at The Gator Bowl, Indiana appeared to be ready to make history.
Holding a 22-9 lead and in possession of the football, one more long drive by IU was all that was seemingly needed to put Tennessee away and give the Hoosiers their first bowl win since 1991 and third nine win season in program history.
And then the wheels came off. The Hoosiers went three and out, and a floundering Volunteer offense suddenly found itself.
Tennessee went 10 plays and 82 yards as they found the end zone for the first time in the game and cut Indiana’s lead to 22-16 with 4:21 remaining.
The Hoosiers were still in a position to run down the clock on their next possession — but they didn’t get the ball back.
The Volunteers successfully converted an onside kick and scored another touchdown just :28 seconds later.
IU head coach Tom Allen said after the game that Indiana did not have their hands team in the game in anticipation of the onside kick.
“We could have, and we probably should have,” Allen said in response to a question about having a special unit in the game to cover an onside kick. “That’s our (the coaches) fault. We went over it on the sidelines.”
The sudden 23-22 Tennessee lead was made possible by a missed extra point by IU kicker Logan Justus, who also had made three field goals earlier in the game.
“The missed extra point, I mean good grief, how often does that happen with an All-Big Ten kicker,” Allen said. “The snap was good, the hold was good. He just missed it.”
Justus would be given the opportunity to account for his missed extra point, but his 52-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right with 2:12 left on the clock.
After stopping Tennessee on the ensuing drive, the Hoosiers got the ball back with no timeouts remaining and :55 seconds left in the game.
Indiana would get as close as the Volunteer 43-yard line, but no closer. On 4th-and-10, a Peyton Ramsey pass to Whop Philyor was underthrown along the sidelines, and Indiana’s bowl win drought continues on to 2020.
“At the end of the day it’s my responsibility for us to find a way to win the game, and we didn’t do that, Allen said in the post-game press conference.
“But it doesn’t take away from what this team has accomplished this season and what they’ve done. Things that haven’t been done for a long, long time here at Indiana.”
For much of the game it looked like it would be the Volunteers that would control things into the fourth quarter.
Tennessee had 202 total yards in the first half to just 69 for Indiana, but the Hoosier defense was able to hold up in the red zone and limit the Volunteers to just two first half field goals.
“I thought our defense played really well,” Allen said. “Coach (Kane) Wommack did a great job mixing things up.”
Nothing was working for IU on the offensive end. An interception in Tennessee territory by Hoosier linebacker Micah McFadden that was set up by quarterback pressure by Cam Jones set up Indiana’s only first half score — a field goal by Justus.
Emerging from halftime down just 6-3, Indiana marched 12 plays and 69 yards to open the second half and found the end zone on a one yard sneak by quarterback Peyton Ramsey.
“We went back to our base stuff and the things that we’ve been good at executing all year long,” Ramsey said of the second half adjustments that seemed to spur on the Indiana offense. “We kind of just locked in and focused and said we’ve got to go move the ball. It was more of an execution thing than anything.”
Moments later, Indiana took control when defensive back Jamar Johnson stepped in front of a pass and took it the other way for a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Justus missed extra point made it 16-6 Hoosiers.
Three more field goals, two by Justus and one by Tennessee set the margin at 22-9, and set up the fourth quarter theatrics — and the Hoosier heartbreak.
A theme all season long including this week in Jacksonville had been about finishing. But on this night, that is precisely what the Hoosiers were unable to do.
“All three phases had a chance to finish and didn’t,” Allen said.
Indiana will have to wait another year for that elusive bowl win and a nine win season.
But even after such a difficult loss, Allen found a way to put a positive spin on the evening and the 2019 campaign.
“We’ll grow from this,” Allen said. “It’s part of the process. It has been a long time since Indiana won eight games. It has been since 1967 since they’ve won nine. So we were inches away from making history here with our program.”
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