TAMPA — The 2020 Indiana football season was one of the best in the Hoosiers’ despondent football history. But the old demons of past IU football failures returned Saturday at the Outback Bowl. Four their fourth bowl game in a row, the Hoosiers lost by a single possession. Here’s what we learned from No. 11 IU’s 26-20 loss to Ole Miss.
Indiana’s defense crumples
The Hoosiers defense bailed out its offense throughout this season. On Saturday, Kane Wommack’s group played its worst game of the season. Ole Miss playing without its top three receivers and starting running back torched IU’s defense for 493 yards.
Wommack had done a masterful job with his gameplan all season long. Was Wommack distracted with his new head coaching job at South Alabama? We’ll never know, but he never found answers to slow the Rebel’s up-tempo offense.
The Hoosiers looked off balance and tired most of the day. The up-tempo also prevented IU from frequent substitutions — a constant this season for the IU defense. This dramatically affected the defensive tackles — all four Hoosier starters went down with injuries over the course of the game. And IU never could generate much pressure against Rebels quarterback Matt Corral.
The four-week layoff also affected the Hoosiers. Facing an up-tempo offense, IU looked rusty with missed tackles throughout the defense. COVID-19 may have also been a factor. The virus can have lingering affects on the body and health. Over 25 Hoosiers tested positive for COVID-19 over the past month. This might have caused more conditioning problems for IU. Tom Allen also mentioned the Tampa Bay heat — upper 70’s and 80% humidity — as a detrimental factor for IU.
Hoosiers ignore the run game too long
IU scored three points in the first half — the lowest total of the season. All year long, IU has neglected to run the football. The Hoosiers finally relied on the ground game in the second half, leading to their two touchdown drives, but it was too little too late.
IU quarterback Jack Tuttle played much of the game with a separated shoulder.
“I thought he was a warrior today but he was pretty dinged up,” Allen said.
Yet IU neglected to run the ball against the worst rushing defense in the SEC. Throughout much of Saturday, IU offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan was obsessed with Whop Philyor screen passes and crossing routes. The senior wide receiver set an Outback Bowl and IU record with 18 catches. However, Philyor only averaged 4.5 yards per catch for 81 yards.
Sheridan’s play calling has been up and down all season. But on Saturday against one the worst statistical Power Five defenses, the Hoosiers never developed a rhythm until late in the third quarter. The Hoosiers likely would have won if they had prioritized the running game earlier in the Outback Bowl.
Another heartbreaking bowl loss does not diminish a historic season
IU continued its struggles in bowl games. Last year, a breakthrough season for Allen concluded with a disastrous fourth quarter and loss in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. Saturday, three hours south in Tampa, a slow start put the Hoosiers too far behind to pull out a victory.
The loss leaves a sour taste in to a memorable season. Saturday was not a reflection of a memorable historic season for IU. The Hoosiers have already proved themselves as a top team in the Big Ten. In Tampa that team never showed up.
IU finishes the season 6-2. Hoosiers fans would have taken that record in September in a heartbeat. IU proved it could beat top-10 teams, snapped the longest losing streak in the country against Michigan and returned to a big-time Florida bowl game. Most of IU’s roster will return.
The 2021 season has potential for more history. But the year 1991, the last time IU won a bowl game, is still on the minds of long-suffering Hoosiers fans. That history will have wait at least one more season.