JACKSONVILLE, Fla – Reakwon Jones struggled to find the words. Nick Westbrook did not.
In the last moments of their Indiana careers, for these two fifth-year seniors who came back to their home state of Florida to win a bowl game they would not, this was how it was.
Jones shaking his head, pausing, exhaling a tired breath. Westbrook starting into a thought cautiously, before finding himself partway through.
The question: Both of you having seen so much growth within this program, how does it take another step forward from here?
Phrased less delicately: How does Indiana football outrun its history?
“Confidence is the biggest thing, going into these games feeling confident, coming out strong, going against bigger teams, the Ohio States, Michigans, going out confident against them,” Westbrook said. “I think that’s the next step.”
It was one step too far for Indiana in the 2019 season, which ended Thursday with a painful 23-22 loss in the Gator Bowl. A late, furious Tennessee rally — spurred by a surprise onside kick — made the Hoosiers (8-5) the first team in 472 tries this season to lose a game when up two scores inside five minutes to go, per ESPN Stats & Info.
“Obviously very, very disappointing to have a fourth-quarter lead and let it slip away,” IU coach Tom Allen said postgame. “But not going to sit here and point fingers and blame. You just, at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility for us to find a way to win the game.
“We didn’t do that, but it doesn’t take away from what this team has accomplished this season and all the things they’ve done that haven’t been done in a long, long time here at Indiana.”
This was the uncomfortable debate IU fans — who were outnumbered Thursday but still turned out well and made their share of noise — grappled with as they filed out of TIAA Bank Field. How to make sense of another heartbreaking defeat, for a fan base so, so familiar with them, and then square that with the best season the Hoosiers have seen since years before any of their players were even born.
Indiana missed a point-after attempt that of course would’ve changed the math at the end of the game. And there was the onside kick Tennessee surprised the Hoosiers with between the Vols’ decisive touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
On that hung most of Thursday’s outrage and frustration, all of which ignored that it was Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt trying the kick — not Allen for deciding not to put his hands team on the field — who took the bigger risk.
More than that, if you want to trash Allen and his staff for the onside kick, the missed extra point, the odd clock management or the fourth-quarter failings, then you must also praise them.
Praise them for fixing an offensive line that withered at first in the face of an SEC pass rush. For holding together a defense backed up into its own end zone three-straight times in the first half. For competing until the clock ran out without a starting tailback and a senior offensive lineman, and with IU’s best playmaker all but absent. For reassembling Logan Justus’ confidence after three misses at Purdue and hot-and-cold practices leading up to the bowl trip. For getting Peyton Ramsey comfortable after a rough first half and gearing that offense back up against a Tennessee team that hadn’t allowed this many points since mid-October.
IU’s coaching wins outnumbered its losses Thursday.
It’s fine to be angry in the wake of a close loss.
But that anger shouldn’t do more than momentarily cloud appreciation for an otherwise successful season. Nor should it fail to recognize Tennessee won the game, more than Indiana lost it.
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Maybe that makes it harder, for a program so accustomed to losing these games — these moments — because of its own failings. Thursday’s game was decided more by what the Volunteers (8-5) achieved than by what the Hoosiers failed to achieve. Maybe that’s more difficult to swallow.
It’s also the new challenge in front of Allen, his staff and his team. The more you win in college football, the tougher it gets. Nobody gets to win eight games and go to the Gator Bowl to face a bad team. Indiana players and coaches spent the week comparing Tennessee to Penn State, a reminder that if you want to play at this level, you’d better be prepared to.
Is Indiana prepared to? Yes and no.
Tennessee’s roster was built largely on classes ranked 13, 21, 17 and 14 nationally, from 2016-19. The Hoosiers’ numbers in that span: 36, 50, 52 and 63. As much as Indiana has improved in talent acquisition, it still has significant room for further growth.
On the other hand, Thursday offered a reminder that Indiana has young talent. Its tight end now owns the single-season program receiving record for his position. Underclassmen registered sacks and tackles for loss, and put up a surprising fight against an SEC offensive line. IU’s best linebackers are only sophomores, and its secondary should be one of the best in the Big Ten next year.
Does any of that make Thursday night easier to digest? Probably not. This team was desperate from day one to win its bowl game, to be the first IU team to do that since 1991, to shed its history by making history, to rise above the same old Indiana in a way that felt permanent and impossible to deny.
In this, these Hoosiers failed. They set their bar higher than anyone else would have, and they fell within mere feet of Justus’ 52-yard missed fourth-quarter field goal attempt. No one will have been more disappointed not to than them.
There will come a day when Indiana doesn’t have to be reminded that no one else in college football seems to lose this way, so often. Someday, the Hoosiers will simply get to end a season with a win and no complaints, just the right to say they succeeded with no riders attached. Maybe that will happen soon.
It did not happen Thursday night in Jacksonville, where the weather had been perfect and the fans had turned out in their thousands, believing in a hashtag and leaving with a sigh. Some would’ve been angry at the result, others bittersweetly content at an otherwise enjoyable season.
All surely just want this cycle to break, and the sun to shine uninterrupted on Indiana football, even if only for a moment.
“We have the right formula,” Westbrook said. “There’s nothing really missing. It’s just buying in even more, really selling out and questioning yourself why not?
“Why not us?”
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.