JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Inside the tunnel underneath TIAA Bank Field IU athletic director Fred Glass put his arm around head coach Tom Allen. Allen put his arm back around Glass. They had both just walked out of the press conference room. Allen was sullen, his head looking down at the black floor.
He leaned toward Allen has they walked down the hallway, and said something to pick up the head coach who led Indiana to its best season in 25 years. Every time Allen has been asked about Glass he’s been emotional, thankful for the athletic director who took a chance on him.
But on the night of Glass’s final football game, the outgoing athletic director left the stadium with a result he’d seen throughout seasons past, regardless of who coached the team.
It was supposed to be an exorcism, a night where everything that had gone against IU for decades upon decades would fall by the wayside. A night where the years of losing and coming up short turned into elation with a breakthrough a quarter century in the making.
And in the end it was a result all too familiar for a program that had experienced it so many times.
For all that’s changed, in the end it was all the same.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey leaned forward from his squat and put his head in the ground. Kicker Logan Justus had just missed a 52-yard field goal, what would have been a career long, to give Indiana a lead back that it had let slip away.
It wasn’t the sole play that sealed a 23-22 loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, but a collection of moments in the final minutes that left an Indiana team so close to a program altering win stunned.
“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,” Allen said. “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.”
IU defensive back Jamar Johnson read Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano the whole play. He was right here when the ball arrived and picked it off. He got the blocks to burst him free, and he took it 63 yards all the way back for a touchdown.
It capped a run of 16 straight points, 16 straight points that gave IU a lead in a game where it had been dominated for so much of the first half.
And with five minutes to play IU had a 13 point lead. This season, FBS teams were 0-471 when trailing by such a margin with five minutes remaining in the game.
A Tennessee field goal followed by onside kick IU wasn’t ready for and a quick touchdown on the ensuing drive saw everything IU had built, how close it had come, all slip away.
“The surprise onside kick, that’s a tough one to swallow,” Allen said. “We’ve got to execute that. Like I said, we had a heads up that it could happen. Guys just didn’t react. That’s my fault. We didn’t get it done right. That’s a big, big mistake on our part.”
A 13-point lead drained away into a one-point deficit.
Indiana had two chances in the final minutes. It missed a field goal and turned it over on downs to seal a fate it has known before.
The history of IU’s football program is marred with impossible breaks against it that seem to happen all too often. It is a program defined by its decades of losing. And thrown in there some short eras of being close, but not close enough.
“It hurts, especially for those guys in the locker room, those seniors that have gotten us to where we are now,” Ramsey said. “Just 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. It hurts for sure. Hurts for those guys in the locker room.”
Even in a season of milestones — where it won eight games, was ranked in the AP Top 25 bowl and clinched bowl eligibility in October — mistakes of years past showed themselves in the biggest moment. Even in such a historic season, that didn’t change.
“Tennessee has won more Gator Bowls than we’ve won bowl games as a program,” Allen said. “That’s a fact. We’ve only won three bowl games in our program’s history. We’re building for the future and that makes this one hurt all the more.”
Allen’s press conference wasn’t filled with tears he had in similar backbreaking losses this season. But the same sullen and stunned feeling Allen exuded in his press conference and embrace with Glass exuded to the players as well.
Allen said he wanted to build a program that is expecting to go to bowl games. He talked about the long term goals of his program and a team laden with freshman and sophomores. It was one of IU’s youngest that had his mind set the same way Allen did.
Cornerback Tiawan Mullen felt he failed his upperclassman teammates, that he didn’t send them off the way they wanted.
“You remember how you finish,” Mullen said. “We just want to start a foundation on top of that season to build. Be the first brick to build on.”
Mullen has been the star of a freshman class that brought IU to its first eight-win season since 1993. He quickly became a key fixture on the defense and headed what he dubbed the “new wave” set to change Indiana football.
He hasn’t done that yet, experiencing a result his upperclassmen are used to. He doesn’t know when he’ll see the seniors he feels he let down next. He’s turning the page from the moment he steps on the bus. As the seniors told him, he still has a lot of football in front of him.
“Next year when we get a bowl game, we’re gonna 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 pull it out. Mark my words.”