JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nearly 30 years of Indiana football futility persisted Thursday night.
For all the change that arrived during the 2019 season, one where Tom Allen’s Hoosiers won eight regular-season games and reached a January bowl for just the third time in school history, the manner in which the Hoosiers lost was familiar.
Tennessee’s 23-22 comeback win in the Gator Bowl came as Indiana wilted under pressure.
A 22-9 lead early in the fourth quarter was gone within seven minutes, and a late 52-yard field goal attempt from fifth-year kicker Logan Justus was wide to the right.
In front of more than 61,000 fans at TIAA Bank Field, Indiana football went through the range of emotions that have long defined it.
A 16-0 scoring run from the Hoosiers, capped by a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown by defensive back Jamar Johnson, briefly seized momentum from the Volunteers in a game highlighted by defensive resiliency and the late-game resolve shown by the Volunteers.
It wouldn't last, though.
Tennessee reached inside the Indiana 30-yard line multiple times during the first half, only generating a couple field goals and a turnover on downs from their travels.
An Indiana offense stuck in neutral during the first half found life with a field-goal drive to close the opening period.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey piloted an offense that was without starting right guard Simon Stepaniak and starting running back Stevie Scott because of injury, and Ramsey’s top target, tight end Peyton Hendershot (6 catches for 67 yards), was in and out of the game with a right shoulder injury.
This put a lot of offensive responsibility on Ramsey, who didn’t shoulder it too well to start.
Indiana’s first four offensive drives ended in a Ramsey interception followed by three punts from Haydon Whitehead. The field goal drive, which made the score 6-3 Tennessee at halftime, came thanks to the first takeaway of the game by Indiana’s defense.
Defensive coordinator Kane Wommack’s unit kept the Volunteers out of the end zone with a 4th-and-goal stop on Tennessee’s second drive of the game before allowing consecutive field goals, good results for a defense that received little rest from the offense.
The defense also gave Indiana great field position for that closing first-half drive, as linebacker Micah McFadden intercepted Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano with just over two minutes before half.
That brief bit of offensive momentum was parlayed into a touchdown drive led by Ramsey to start the second half.
The 12-play, 69-yard drive ended the same way many Hoosier drives have this season, with Ramsey sneaking the ball across the goal line from a yard out to give Indiana its first lead at 10-6.
Less than a minute later, Johnson was directing traffic on his way to the end zone, giving Indiana a 16-6 lead after kicker Logan Justus missed the extra point.
That missed kick would loom large as the Tennessee comeback later came to fruition.
Tennessee replaced Guarantano briefly in the second half following the pick-six, and his attempt to rally the Volunteers started with a touchdown drive with 4:21 to go.
Then, trailing 22-16 after that touchdown, the Volunteers caught the Hoosiers napping.
An onside kick attempt was successful, and after the video review that confirmed it, “Rocky Top” belted around the stadium as orange and white clad fans sensed the impending change in fortunes.
It took just 28 seconds for Tennessee to parlay that special teams magic into the eventual winning points. Eric Gray ran into the end zone from 16 yards out, and Brent Cimaglia converted the extra point to give the Volunteers a 23-22 lead.
Indiana’s best chance to snatch a win came and went with Justus’ miss, and after a final turnover on downs, so went the chance for a first bowl win since 1991 and a nine-win season for just the third time in school history.