JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — Junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey avoided the initial rush and stepped up in the pocket, side-stepping to the right. He planted his left foot and let the ball go as he slung it to junior wide receiver Whop Philyor.
The ball wobbled out of Ramsey’s hand as it floated through the air before falling lifeless to ground short of Philyor, ending IU’s season with a 23-22 loss to the University of Tennessee.
Ramsey stood rooted to the spot. He took a second to look around at the stunned IU fan section before slowly unbuckling his chinstrap as he walked back to the Hoosiers’ sideline.
It was an abrupt ending to what was thought to be a storybook season.
“Really proud of the guy sitting next to me,” IU head coach Tom Allen said, turning to Ramsey. “He just played his heart out and fought and scratched and clawed to try to find ways to make plays.”
With less than five minutes remaining in the game, IU was comfortable.
Holding a 22-9 lead, the Hoosiers were on the brink of shedding almost three decades of disappointment. Years of not being able to end their season with a smile were about to fall by the wayside.
Then all of a sudden, the wall surrounding IU’s dream season started to crack.
With 4:21 remaining, Tennessee’s freshman linebacker Quavaris Crouch punched it in from the one-yard line to make it a single score game.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Volunteers decided to attempt an onside kick instead of giving the ball back to IU and forcing the Hoosiers to go the length of the field. The Volunteers executed the kick perfectly as they pounced on it, regaining possession near mid-field with a chance to take the lead.
“They obviously didn’t show an onside kick formation,” Allen said. “Hindsight is 20/20; wish you would have had [the hands team] out there.”
IU didn’t respond well to the sudden adversity as its defense was forced to go back onto the field after surrendering a 10-play, 82-yard drive just minutes prior.
It would only take Tennessee three plays and 28-seconds, capped off by a 16-yard touchdown rush from freshman running back Eric Gray for the Volunteers to turn IU’s 22-9 lead into a 23-22 deficit.
“We were playing well,” fifth-year senior linebacker Reakwon Jones said. “But then we didn’t play well when it mattered the most towards the end of the game. Maybe a few days later we can look back and say, ‘we did pretty good here or pretty good there’ but overall we did not do good enough.”
As the IU offense took the field trying to regain the lead, Ramsey once again this season stepped up as a leader for the Hoosiers, delivering when his team needed him.
On the first play of the drive, Ramsey delivered a perfect pass down the right sideline to junior wide receiver Ty Fryfogle for a 39-yard completion setting the Hoosiers up in field goal range.
Fifth-year kicker Logan Justus paced back-and-forth waiting for his opportunity to put IU back in the lead. As IU set up for the field goal, Justus took one last glance up at the goalposts 52-yards away.
The ball was snapped, fifth-year senior punter Haydon Whitehead spun the laces out and Justus swung his leg through the ball. It flew through the air end-over-end as it curled wide right.
“We know it's been since 1967 since they won nine,” Allen said. “We were inches away from making tremendous history here in our program and being the first team to win a bowl game in 28 years. That's what makes this hurt so bad is to be that close and realize you had history on your fingertips and let it slip away.”
As Allen walked out of IU’s final press-conference of the season, he wrapped his arms around IU Athletic Director Fred Glass, and they walked together towards the Hoosiers’ locker room.
Glass, who is retiring at the end of the school year, had just watched his final chance to win a bowl game fade away. Allen knows the starting place for IU’s 2020 season.
“Next year when we get a bowl game, we’re going to make sure we finish off the right way,” freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen said. “We had a chance to close out this bowl game but next year we’ll be sure to close it out. Mark my words.”