Their fingerprints were still fresh on the Old Oaken Bucket in frigid West Lafayette.
But when I asked Florida natives Nick Westbrook and Tiawan Mullen about the idea of returning home for a bowl game outside the visiting locker rooms at Purdue, their enthusiasm for the idea could not have been more clear.
Maybe it was the thought of escaping the weather? While understandable after spending four hours in the rain and cold, a trip back home to play in front of friends and family means a little more.
“It would be very special. I would be grateful for it,” Mullen said as he broke into a smile.
For Westbrook, a fifth year senior, the game holds even more significance.
“It would be huge. I’ve got so much family and friends down there that would definitely be going to the game. To be able to play back in my home state, potentially being my last time ever playing football, it would mean a lot,” Westbrook said as he transitioned from a smile to choking back tears.
The concept has become a reality after it was announced on Sunday that Indiana will travel to Jacksonville to play in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2 against Tennessee.
Mullen and Westbrook represent just a small part of IU’s Florida centric roster that will be rewarded with a homecoming in a few weeks.
“As many of you know, as we emphasized also to the Gator Bowl folks, a Big Ten high 26 of our players are from Florida, that grows to 34 if you just include the surrounding states,” Indiana Director of Athletics Fred Glass said on Sunday. “I think that will increase fan interest down there as well.”
The bowl game appearance, Indiana’s 12th all-time, will be the program’s first ever in the state of Florida, and the second in January.
Beyond the roster, Indiana has a strong alumni base in the Jacksonville area, and Glass indicated that factor was used as a selling point to the Gator Bowl committee.
“We have emphasized to our new friends at the Gator Bowl, we have 23,000 alumni who live within 300 miles of Jacksonville, that doesn’t even include the snowbirds that are down there in the winter, Glass said.
“I think we’ll have a lot of folks already there, if you will, as well as I expect we’ll travel great to the Gator Bowl. Not only because it is in Florida, but also January 2nd I think works very well for families. It was harder the day after Christmas in New York and it was harder in Santa Clara. This is a much easier push for our folks.”
For two Hoosier players Jacksonville will represent a homecoming in the truest since of the word. Two IU safeties will be returning to the city where they grew up.
Senior Khalil Bryant attended Jacksonville’s First Coast High School, while sophomore Devon Matthews hails from Ribault.
Perhaps no one wanted the Gator Bowl more than Bryant and Matthews, but the Sunshine State in general was a very popular destination up and down the IU roster.
“The location, it is huge,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “So many of our guys are from the southeast, and they wanted a Florida Bowl really bad.”
More than just sentimental value, the Gator Bowl has the potential to be a real asset to the Indiana program in a number of ways.
The Thursday night slot has no competition with other bowl games or the National Football League. Those variables, and others, are aspects of this game that Allen was keenly aware of.
“It is a national stage that you get to play on against a nationally recognized football program and a nationally recognized Bowl,” Allen said. “All of those things combined, and the time of year, as you mentioned, when we have a chance to be the one thing that everybody is watching.”
Baked into all of the positives that come from Indiana playing in Gator Bowl is the chance to continue the program’s recruiting momentum on some of its most fertile ground.
An additional variable that will aid Allen in that regard in the coming weeks is his new seven-year contract extension that he signed last week.
While head coaching uncertainty is a popular negative recruiting tool out on the trail, Allen can now confidently look young men and their families in the eye and confidently assure them that he is in it at IU for the long haul.
“You get into the contract, you get into the point when you have a certain number of years left, and that becomes the question. Hey, are you going to be here? How long are you going to be here? You get asked that a lot in the recruiting process, Allen said.
“I can say with absolute confidence this is — I just signed this contract at this particular time and this is what it means. There is no question it gives them tremendous confidence in the future.”
Allen, who coached in Florida before coming to IU, and whose son attended the same high school in Tampa as Whop Philyor, Juwan Burgess, and Micah McFadden, is well connected in the state.
Despite the long distance to Indiana, those relationships helped build a certain level of trust that has now been enhanced with his new contract.
“If I’m a coach, I know my players are coming to Indiana, they’re treated a certain way, being developed as men and challenged to be great in the classroom and they’re able to perform at a high level on the football field it just accentuates everything that we’re doing and puts a stamp of approval that you can come to Indiana and have a great experience and play big-time college football in the Big 10 conference and play on a national stage and come back to your home state and play in a Bowl Game, Allen said.
“I just think those are things that continue to build the momentum of our recruiting down there, and I only see this as a chance to grow that and so that’s why — another reason why I’m very excited about this Bowl.”
From the players to the coaches, the enthusiasm for this particular bowl destination could not be more clear.
There will only be one more thing left to do to ensure that Indiana fully capitalizes on its Gator Bowl opportunity.
Allen left no doubt about what the Hoosiers intend to do when they arrive in Jacksonville.
It is the same thing they did on a cold, wet day in West Lafayette, and seven other times during what has become a memorable 2019 season.
“We’re going there to win. There’s no question,” Allen said.
INJURED HOOSIERS SHOULD BE ABLE TO PLAY
Allen was asked about the availability of several key injured players for the Gator Bowl:
“As of today and talking with our medical staff I feel really good about (tackle) Matt Bedford being ready to roll. I feel really good about (running back) Sampson James being completely ready to go, and (running back) Stevie Scott with the extra week basically of the different variations of Bowl opportunities that we had, this being the latest one, optimistic about him, I would say still not a guarantee yet. Obviously it does help that we’ll be playing in early January. We’ll know more about him, and I’ll be able to say more about him probably after we practice a few days later on this week as to where he’s at.”
Quarterback Michael Penix and tackle Coy Cronk will not be available for the game.
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