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Playing to win the game: the Gator Bowl is here

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Fifth-year linebacker Reakwon Jones reiterated a message he and his team have preached all season long.

He sat on the end of a table alongside his fellow team captains and head coach Tom Allen in the team room of TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, the site of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl now just hours away. The players all wore their white jerseys, a Gator Bowl patch sewn onto their left shoulders.

"Talking to each other in our room, we're going to win this game," Jones said. "It's been very clear what our mission is, and the guys have locked in, came to work in practice when it's time to work, and when it's time to have fun, have fun. The guys are really handling this trip well and keeping that urgency level high."

Since Allen ran off the field following Indiana's bowl-clinching win in Lincoln, jumping and pumping his fist while giving high fives to fans on his way into the tunnel, the team continued to refer back to the same goal. Allen talked in Monday media sessions, telling the story of his team's goal set all the way back in the preseason.

The goal was not just to go to the bowl game, but to win it.

IU hasn't played since November 30 and it has treated the bowl process as, for all intensive purposes, an extra spring ball.

"Playing a late bowl game here in January allowed us to be able to give our guys some time away initially. The first couple weeks, we mostly spent time in the weight room, getting our bodies rested and recovered from a long season," Allen said. "We did a couple practices where we did some seven-on-sevens and things like that, but no pads the first couple weeks."

Allen has had to create a schedule that kept IU fresh, but also still ready to play when it takes the field for the 7 p.m. kickoff Thursday against Tennessee. IU has tried to get healthy, or at least as healthy as it can be. Freshman tackle Matthew Bedford is likely to play and fifth-year guard Simon Stepaniak is a game time decision; likely, fifth-year Davondre Love will fill in for him. Sophomore running back Stevie Scott appears unlikely to play.

The pads came on right before Christmas as the team reported to Jacksonville. They've practiced at Fernandina Beach High School, about 50 minutes from TIAA Bank Field, and near the team's hotel on Amelia Island.

It's given fifth-year wide receiver Nick Westbrook a feeling of being back at home. One of IU's 26 Florida natives, Westbrook is getting to play his final college game in his home state. To him, the air just feels different being home.

Jones too is playing his final game in the state where he grew up. The Gator Bowl gives him a chance, in his last opportunity, to do what he came to Indiana for.

Quarterback Peyton Ramsey drops back in Gator Bowl practice earlier in the week. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

"I wanted to come help and be a part of the change," Jones said. "You know, change something. I didn't want to go to a school that was already having success and I was just going to be there."

That change would come with stopping another of the droughts Allen set out to end when he took over as the head coach. Indiana hasn't won a bowl game since the 1991 Copper Bowl, where coach Bill Mallory's team shutout Baylor 24-0. IU is 3-8 in bowl games all time. The Gator Bowl is just IU's fourth bowl appearance since 1991.

IU has compared Tennessee to Penn State in their preparation for the game. Coordinators talked during a meeting last week, and on film they saw a defensive line with burst and a defensive line as a whole that swarmed the ball. They saw an offensive line with size and strength and skill positions players all matching the talent level they saw when they watched Penn State.

"I just think it's about speed, size and to me that's what we felt like as a staff that they were probably closest to is Penn State," Allen said.

Indiana's season of milestones earned Allen a new contract; he ended program droughts of not having a winning season and not being in the AP Top 25. But even for all the success of the 2019 season, none of IU's eight wins have come over a team with a winning record.

The change isn't completed at Indiana just yet. That's why IU isn't happy just to be in Jacksonville. And for a team wanting to create change of a program spending much of its existence as a bottom feeder, facing Tennessee -- a program with six national championships and a .675 all time winning percentage, 12th best nationally -- seems all too fitting.

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