Indiana knew what was coming on Saturday.
But preparing for it, and facing the real thing are two entirely different beasts.
It turns out scout team up-tempo offense in frigid Bloomington was no match for Lane Kiffin’s torrid-paced offensive attack in hot and humid Tampa.
Just how fast was the Ole Miss offense going at the Outback Bowl? Their seven-play, 57-yard drive to open the game took just 2:04 off the clock. And their decisive six-play, 63-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter chewed up just 1:46. Everything in between followed the same exhausting script.
Indiana (6-2) forced 20 takeaways on the season in seven games by creating confusion at the line of scrimmage. On Saturday there was no time for deception. Instead, the Hoosiers were just trying to get back to the line before the next snap, and hoping to survive.
“To me the tempo is really the hardest part because we rely so much on disguising things, and it’s hard to do that because you’re just trying to get lined up to play a snap,” IU coach Tom Allen said after the game.
“We lived off of those pressures and takeaways and they were trying to keep us from having a chance to do that.”
The weather only made matters worse for IU. Temperatures were in the low 80s in Tampa on Saturday and the relative humidity even higher.
Indiana was unable to benefit from a normal acclimation period in Tampa, arriving on Wednesday and not practicing there until Thursday.
And the Hoosiers were coming off a lengthy pause due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program.
Allen acknowledged the challenges presented by the Ole Miss offense and the conditions that seemed to conspire against his team. But he wasn’t ready to make excuses. Instead, Allen believes his team just needed to find a way to do what his defense had done so well all year long.
“No question the tempo and the heat was a tough combination, but you’ve just got to fight through,” he said. “But we just needed a takeaway.”
The fatigue was apparent. Throughout the game Indiana players could be seen on the field dealing with what appeared to be cramps.
All-American linebacker Micah McFadden saw the impact on his teammates first hand.
“I think it definitely played a factor in the game,” McFadden said. “I saw a lot of guys tightening up towards the end of the game and some even towards the middle of the game. It was tough to get subs in, and they were definitely moving on us fast. We knew that they were going to do that, and we practiced to prepare, but there wasn’t much we could do to prepare for the heat, and the exhaustion and the fatigue at the end.”
Through it all, Indiana’s defense performed reasonably well, at least in a bend-but-don’t-break fashion. Although they gave up 493 yards of offense, that was still under the Rebels’ average of 562 per contest. And Ole Miss came into the game averaging more than 40 points a game.
Aided by a couple Rebel missed field goals, IU fought back to tie the game at 20 with just over five minutes left. Perhaps just one more stop of the vaunted Rebel attack was needed.
But whether due to fatigue, confusion, or maybe both, the Hoosier defense finally broke one too many times. It happened in the blink of an eye, just the way the Rebels like it.
With Ole Miss at their own 49-yard line, quarterback Matt Corral found J.R. Plumlee for a 44-yard play well into the IU red zone.
“That last drive is the one that really, we just can’t give that long pass play up,” Allen said. “Just had a mistake there with one of our better players.”
It is hard to know for sure who made the mistake. Linebacker Cam Jones ended up giving chase on the play. It could have been Jones that Allen referred to.
But it really isn’t about figuring out the “who” on one play as much as “what” went wrong on the afternoon. And on this day the “what” was an Ole Miss offense that was just a little bit better than Indiana’s defense.
Indiana made a living in 2020 leaving quarterbacks guessing as they gobbled up 17 interceptions on the season. On Saturday in Tampa, it was a hot, tired and frustrated Hoosier defense that was on its heels, just trying to get lined up for the next play.
And the takeaways that made them famous were nowhere to be found at Raymond James Stadium.
“You’ve got to take it like a man when you fall short,” Allen said. “We didn’t make enough plays.”
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