JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — There are numerous reasons why IU football blew its opportunity to win the Gator Bowl. Not being prepared for an onside kick and a doinked extra point obviously go to the forefront of most lists.
Atrocious timeout usage, a missed 52-yard field goal and a blunder that cost IU a shot at a touchdown at the end of the first half also come to mind.
However, IU became the first FBS team in 472 games this season to lead a contest by 13 points with five minutes remaining that lost said game because of conservative play and play calling when the game was seemingly well in hand.
With 8:50 to go in the game, IU started a drive on its own 24. The Hoosier defense had just forced a three and out and was in a prime position to open up a three possession lead with a touchdown. IU’s previous four offensive drives ended with the following results: field goal, touchdown, field goal, field goal.
The successful drives were a result of a heavy dose of junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey throwing the ball with a few draw plays and scrambles thrown in. IU only handed the ball off to freshman running back Sampson James six times — for just nine yards — during the four drives.
It was extremely clear with Tennessee’s dominant front seven and IU missing its leading rusher in sophomore Stevie Scott III and two starting lineman that IU wasn't going to have much success running the ball. And again, up until this point, IU did a great job in the second half of the game masking that weakness.
But IU’s first two plays of the drive were handoffs to James. The first went for five yards — that’s not the issue. A change of pace run is good to keep the defense off-balance. But then IU bled the play clock down to three seconds — the equivalent of a scared underdog waiting up five points with eight minutes left trying to run clock in an NCAA Tournament game.
IU handed the ball off to James again, and as a shock to nobody, he was eaten up for a loss of three yards. A missed deep ball on third down caused a three and out, and suddenly, instead of IU putting the game away, Tennessee had a flicker of life.
"Today I feel like you can look at it like, complacency can happen,” senior receiver Nick Westbrook said. “I wouldn’t say we felt complacent on the sidelines but maybe just mentally. Just thinking that we had the lead with five minutes left.”
After the punt, it was the defenses’ turn to play not to lose. Tom Allen prides himself on having a defense that is always attacking and is relentless in trying to wreak havoc. However, IU uncharacteristically deployed soft zone coverage with just three and four man rushes for the first three plays of Tennessee’s drive.
“We were like, ‘You know what, if we just get one more stop,’ instead of having that attack mindset,” Westbrook said. “The biggest thing is, we just gotta make our plays.”
The Vols gained 56 yards on those three plays while taking no significant time off the clock. That drive resulted in a touchdown, and well, you know the rest.
In the end, IU lived up to its unfortunate reputation of finding yet another new and unheard of painful way to lose a football game. IU’s first contest of the new decade ended in the familiar feel of letting a game against a marquee foe slip away.
“We've just got to stay the course,” Allen said. “That's what grit is all about, perseverance and passion towards a long-term goal. So we're just going to keep fighting.”
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