JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Peyton Ramsey’s shoulders sulked, and his head dipped toward the ground.
A last chance pass on 4th and 10 to Whop Philyor was underthrown by Indiana’s quarterback, and with the incompletion, Indiana’s season ended in ignominious fashion.
Tennessee’s 23-22 win in Thursday night’s Gator Bowl came as the Volunteers stormed back from 13 points down with less than five minutes to go, becoming the first FBS team to overcome that deficit in that time frame this season (previous teams were 0-471 in their comeback efforts).
An Indiana season which featured eight regular-season wins for the first time since 1993 and the program’s third-ever January bowl game finished in shambles, and in a fashion reminiscent of Indiana's nearly 30-year failure to win a postseason game.
So Ramsey lowered his shoulders, offensive lineman Caleb Jones retreated 20 yards backward with a hand on his hip and his head held high, while coach Tom Allen was moistened by the Gatorade bath which cascaded on Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt during their midfield handshake.
The chance for a nine-win season came and went. Each man on the team grieved in their own way.
“Being up how we were, you’re not expecting that to happen,” fifth-year wide receiver Nick Westbrook recounted postgame. “You’re only thinking about the good outcomes.”
For so long and in front of more than 61,000 fans, the vast majority of them supporting Tennessee, it appeared Indiana would reverse the cliches associated with the program in close games.
A 6-3 halftime Tennessee lead, born from a stagnant offensive first-half from Indiana and a resilient one defensively, quickly became a 10-point second half lead for Allen’s team.
The run was non-existent for Indiana (less than 2.3 yards per carry), so Ramsey and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, calling plays for the final time at Indiana, favored passing come the second half.
Without offensive lineman Simon Stepaniak and running back Stevie Scott, both starters out for the game due to injury, Ramsey orchestrated a 12-play touchdown drive to give Indiana its first lead.
It grew to 16-6 with a 63-yard interception return touchdown by Jamar Johnson (Logan Justus missed the extra point), and momentum firmly shifted to the crimson side of TIAA Bank Field midway through the third quarter.
The surge from the Hoosiers, seeking their first postseason win since 1993, utterly collapsed after Justus made his third field goal of the game with 10:27 left to make the score 22-9.
An 82-yard drive in less than three minutes put the Volunteers within six points with four minutes left. An onside kick from the Volunteers immediately gave them the ball back.
The play survived a video review, but it came with the Hoosiers in their normal kickoff coverage.
Only four IU players were within 15 yards of the kickoff, and the swathes of open space were perfect for an easy Tennessee recovery.
Postgame, Pruitt said Tennessee practiced that onside kick between 500 and 600 times in the past six months, and film showed him it could work against Indiana.
“We could have and probably should have,” Allen said about IU being in an onside formation for the play. “We didn’t react very well even though we went over it and kind of felt like it was a possibility.”
Less than 30 seconds later Tennessee was back in the end zone.
Eric Gray’s 16-yard rushing score tied the game, followed by Brent Cimaglia converting the extra point to make 23-22.
There was time left for Justus to miss a 52-yard field goal wide right, which would have been a career long, before Indiana’s final ill-fated drive.
“Life is a process of learning from things that happen to us, and the things that you go through,” Allen said. “We’ll grow from this, it’s part of the process. 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.”
Following the loss, freshman defensive back Tiawan Mullen said he failed his teammates.
He said this loss, and the manner in which it came, didn't define Indiana's season, but would rather be part of the brick-by-brick foundation being laid by the young program.
For these young IU players (underclassmen comprise more than 70 percent of the team), they don’t know anything different.
“Next year when we get a bowl game, we’re going to make sure we finish off the right way,” Mullen said. “We had a chance to close out this bowl game, but next year for sure we’re going to close it out. Mark my words.”