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IU football faces one last test in the Gator Bowl



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IU football players raise their helmets in the air after defeating Purdue on Nov. 30 at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana. IU won in double overtime 44-41. Alex Deryn

The team room inside Memorial Stadium sat empty Sunday, whiteboards erased except for one note that has remained on the board all season: “The habits you create don’t leave you, they become you.”

IU made its way to Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday for its Thursday 7 p.m. matchup against the University of Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.

Before the season started, the Hoosiers set their goals for the season and making a bowl game wasn't one of them, winning it was.

Throughout the season, IU head coach Tom Allen has talked about the focus his team showed week-in and week-out as it strived to achieve its goal

With the extended lead-up to the bowl game, IU has been able to focus on individual improvement instead of the usual game-planning during a typical game week. During the four weeks since IU’s double-overtime victory over Purdue, the Hoosiers emphasized technique. Most of this young IU team underwent bowl preparation for the first time as only seven players on the roster had played in a bowl game before.

“It’s been a lot of drill work,” Allen said. “We are a very young football team, so we got a lot of young guys that are in the ones and twos so it’s been designed to have a lot of technique and fundamental work.”

The Hoosiers also used the long break to get healthy before taking on the Volunteers.

Freshman left-tackle Mathew Bedford (lower leg), freshman running back Sampson James (ankle) and junior wide receiver Ty Fryfogle (lower body) were all banged-up at the end of the season but are all expected to play.

The big question-mark for IU is the health of sophomore running back Stevie Scott III, who would provide a huge boost offensively as the Hoosiers get ready to face one of the best defenses in the country.

Tennessee’s defense is one of the main reasons the Volunteers made the postseason. They rank No. 27 in total defense and are anchored by three seniors — safety Nigel Warrior, linebackers Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli.

Taylor is a dominant edge-rusher who leads the Volunteers with seven sacks and eight tackles for loss. Beside him, Bituli is a run-stopping machine with 63 total tackles on the season and four tackles for loss.

On the backend, Warrior has shown he can be a dominant safety with four interceptions and is projected to go in the early rounds of the NFL draft.

Tennessee’s rush defense has been serviceable this season, allowing 145.8 rush yards per game. But it’s the Volunteers' pass defense that gives offensive coordinators nightmares.

Tennessee has the No. 16 pass defense in the country as they only allow 191.3 yards per game and have the type of playmakers that can wreak havoc on a passing offense like IU’s. Tennessee’s front seven consistently gets pressure on the quarterback and have athletic defensive backs who shut down opposing receivers.

“They’re really big upfront and super athletic on the backend,” junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey said. “They got a bunch of guys who can come in and out to keep them fresh. They’re a really good defense, so it will be a good test for us.”

While Tennessee’s defense is dominant enough to win them games, its offense can lose them.

The Volunteers enter the Gator Bowl with the No. 101 ranked offense and have struggled scoring points this season. They’ve been held to 20 points or less in five of their 12 games.

To make things worse for Tennessee, their best wide receiver senior Jauan Jennings is suspended for the first half of the game after he stepped on the face of Vanderbilt University's punter Justice Shelton-Mosley in the team’s final game.

With Jennings sidelined, the Volunteers must rely even more on their trio of running backs — junior Ty Chandler, junior Tim Jordan and freshman Eric Gray — who have all rushed for over 400-yards this season.

Tennessee likes to run the ball early and often in games, which will be a worthy test for IU as the Hoosiers hope to become just the third team in program history to reach nine wins.

“We want (bowl games) to be the new normal,” Allen said. “We want it to be that our guys expect to be here.”

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