JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — If IU football had finished off the University of Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, it would have been its defense that got it there.
The Hoosiers’ offense mustered just three points in the first two quarters, but their defense managed to keep them in the game despite allowing 202 first-half yards. The Volunteers threatened to score for most of the game but were held to three field goals in the first three quarters.
“I thought our defense played really well,” IU head coach Tom Allen said. “They just continued to battle, stop the run against a big, physical offensive line that I was concerned about.”
Once IU gained its first lead of the game in the third quarter, its defense immediately responded with six more points off a 63-yard interception returned for a touchdown by sophomore defensive end Jamar Johnson.
The Hoosiers were up 22-9 in the fourth quarter, minutes away from the program’s first bowl win since 1991.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Aided by careless penalties, an unexpected onside kick and a game-winning field goal attempt pushed wide right, Tennessee became the first Football Bowl Subdivision team this season to overcome a 13-point deficit in the final five minutes of regulation.
“Very disappointing to have a fourth-quarter lead and let it slip away,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, it's my responsibility for us to find a way to win the game. We didn't do that, but it doesn't take away from what this team has accomplished this season.”
Following an IU 3-and-out on its second drive of the fourth quarter, Tennessee rattled off first downs on three consecutive plays before stalling in the red zone. It looked like the Hoosiers had disrupted the drive with a third down stop, but a late defensive holding call on Johnson kept the drive alive. Three plays later, the Volunteers scored their first touchdown of the game.
IU was set to get the ball back with a 22-16 lead, but Tennessee caught them off guard with an onside kick. Allen said he and his staff discussed putting their hands team out on the field for the return but opted against it.
“We could have and probably should have, and that's our fault,” Allen said. “We didn’t, and they got the ball. We didn't react very well even though we went over it and kind of felt like it was a possibility.”
The first play following the onside kick, the Volunteers picked up 23 yards through the air before drawing a 15-yard facemask penalty from fifth-year senior linebacker Reakwon Jones.
“It was a big flag,” Jones said. “Wrong time, got to be smarter. It happens when you’re trying to play hard and trying to make plays.”
Tennessee was back in the end zone for another touchdown two plays later, this time to take the lead for good.
IU’s offense had two opportunities to retake the lead but failed despite crossing midfield both times.
With more than two minutes remaining, fifth-year senior kicker Logan Justus needed to convert a would-be career-long 52-yard attempt. Justus barely had enough power behind his kick, but he pushed it wide right.
The Hoosiers ended up with the ball one more time but needed to go 81 yards with 55 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Once IU got back onto Tennessee’s half of the field, it failed to gain another yard.
Junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey’s 4th-down pass targeted for junior receiver Whop Philyor fell a few feet short to put an end to IU’s late comeback effort and its season.
“It hurts, especially for those guys in the locker room,” Ramsey said. “One play here, one play there that you look back on and you say, man, if we make that one, it could be a different story.”
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