JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Victory was there.
History was within reach.
Just take it.
Everything that Indiana wanted for its football program — the first bowl victory since 1991, a nine-win season — was there Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla.
And then it wasn’t.
The final TaxSlayer Gator Bowl score — Tennessee 23, Indiana 22.
What do you say when you’re head coach Tom Allen, when you watch your team play so well for so long, when you see rib-rocking defense the way you’ve always demanded it, diverse offense the way you’ve envisioned it, only to see it slip away in 31 agonizing seconds?
What do you do when you’re quarterback Peyton Ramsey, when you’ve willed your team from brutal first-half offensive misery to something special?
How do you handle missing an extra point and a field goal, or giving up a crucial, crunch-time on-side kick that led to the winning touchdown?
A 22-9 lead with five minutes left wasn’t enough.
The Volunteers (8-5) scored 14 points in those 31 seconds, nine in the other 59 minutes and 29 seconds. It was enough for their sixth-straight victory.
“I’m not going to point fingers and blame,” Allen said in the post-game press conference. “At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility for us to find a way to win. We didn’t do that, but it doesn’t take away from what this team has accomplished, and all the things that haven’t been done in a long time.”
Added Ramsey: “It hurts, especially for those guys in the locker room, those seniors who have gotten us to where we are now.
“Just one play here, one play there that you look back on and say, ‘Man, if we make that one, it could be a different story.’
“It hurts for sure.”
It was enough to crush Hoosier hearts, but not resolve.
Indiana (8-5) would, Allen insisted, be back, and better.
“We’ll grow from this. It’s part of the process. It’s been a long time since Indiana has won eight games. It’s been since 1967 since they won nine.
“We were inches away from making tremendous history in our program. That’s what makes this hurt so bad, to be that close and have history on your fingertips and let it slip away.”
Ramsey again showed why he’s as effective as any quarterback in the nation in running the sneak with a huge second-quarter first down on fourth-and-one, and then a third-quarter touchdown.
He rushed 17 times for 54 yards and a touchdown. He completed 20-of-34 passes for 227 yards, but he missed on his final four throws.
“I’m really proud of (Ramsey),” Allen said. “He played his heart out. He fought and scratched and clawed to find ways to make plays.”
Ramsey wasn’t alone. Tight end Peyton Hendershot caught six passes for 67 yards despite a banged-up shoulder. Nick Westbrook caught four for 48.
IU was without starting tailback Stevie Scott III, who had missed the regular-season finale against Purdue with an ankle injury. Sampson James replaced him and finished with 25 rushing yards on 11 carries.
A young defense made plays – highlighted by husky Jamar Johnson’s 63-yard pick-6.
It wasn’t enough, and the special teams mistakes stood out.
“The missed extra point, good grief, how often does that happen with a guy (Logan Justus) who’s an All-Big Ten kicker,” Allen said. “The missed field goal was a tough one, as well.
“But the surprise on-side kick, that’s a tough one to swallow. Guys didn’t react. That’s my fault. We didn’t get it done right.”
The Hoosiers overcame a slow offensive start. But with Kalen DeBoer in his final game as offensive coordinator before taking over as Fresno State head coach, the Hoosiers found their second-half offense.
It almost was enough.
“We went back to our base stuff and the things we’ve been good at executing,” Ramsey said. “We locked in and focused and said, we’ve got to move the game. It was more of an execution thing and getting back to what we do best.”
For most of the first half, IU had no offense. Ramsey was under constant pressure, and the running game was ineffective.
Fortunately for the Hoosiers, the defense was in major bend-don’t-break mode.
Finally, it broke through with linebacker Micah McFadden’s interception, the result of fierce defensive pressure.
That gave the Hoosiers the ball in Tennessee territory, and Ramsey went to work. He converted a fourth-and-one quarterback sneak, then ran the Hoosiers inside the 10-yard line as the clock ticked under 10 seconds. That set up Logan Justus’ 24-yard field goal.
In a half dominated by Tennessee (a 202-to-69 total yard edge), IU trailed just 6-3.
All things were possible.
The Hoosiers had the ball to start the second half and came out with balanced offense behind more effective offensive line play.
They held the ball for the first 5:31. Ramsey converted another quarterback sneak for a touchdown and a 10-6 Hoosier lead.
Tennessee responded with a 50-yard kickoff return to get into IU territory. Johnson wiped that out with his 63-yard interception return of a Jarrett Guarantano pass for a touchdown. Justus missed the extra point and the lead was 10 points.
Back-up Tennessee quarterback Brian Maurer led Tennessee to a field goal, helped by near miss interceptions from defensive backs Juwan Burgess and Devon Matthews.
IU responded with a 49-yard Justus field goal for a 19-9 Hoosier lead entering the fourth quarter.
A third Justus field goal made it 22-9 with 10:27 remaining.
Indiana wouldn’t score again.
As the clock ticked under five minutes, Tennessee drove 82 yards in less than three minutes for its first touchdown, converted the on-side kick, then drove for another touchdown.
That was 14 points in 31 seconds. The Volunteers led 23-22.
Justus missed a 52-yard field goal attempt, but the Hoosiers forced a three-and-out to get the ball back one final time with 55 seconds remaining.
Ramsey completed passes to Westbrook and Hendershot to get to the Tennessee 45-yard line, but no further.
A game that should have been won was not.
A big lesson, Allen said, was learned.
“We’re building for the future, and that makes this hurt all the more. But I’m proud of our guys and the direction we’re going and the way we’re building. We’ve just got to stay the course. That’s what grit is all about. We’re going to keep fighting.”