Outback Bowl stumble reopens old scars for IU football, won't change perception of program

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

There was a moment, late in the decisive fourth quarter of Saturday’s Outback Bowl, when Indiana got to do something it hasn’t been able to all season.

Facing a crucial 3rd-and-4 on Ole Miss’ first set of downs of the drive, IU defenders beckoned the crowd to come with them. The Hoosiers had just tied the score. A stop then would’ve handed Indiana the ball back with momentum, and the chance to clinch its first bowl victory since 1991.

A Indiana Hoosiers fan jumps up in celebration of a defensive play in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Ole Miss defeated Indiana 26-20.

What fans were inside Raymond James Stadium — by all accounts a pro-IU crowd — stood and cheered. Ole Miss converted the third down. Three plays later, the Rebels were in the end zone. Indiana lost, 26-20. Those fans, watching their team in person for the first time in this pandemic-impacted season, were treated to a painfully familiar outcome. For Indiana, it was a reminder: Those fans have seen too much failure and known too much pain for all of it to be erased by one good season. Saturday’s loss will have reopened old scars. Earning their implicit trust remains a task unfinished.

"This one’s gonna hurt for a while,” IU coach Tom Allen admitted afterward.

Doyel:The Hoosiers did this to themselves. They took this special season and stained it.

More:Us-against-the-world IU crashes hard onto beaches of bitter reality in Outback Bowl defeat

There’s always a tendency among fans to react emotionally to defeat. Bowl games even more so.

In the grand scheme, they aren’t terribly impactful on a program’s direction. Pat Fitzgerald lost his first four at Northwestern. So did Mark Dantonio, at Michigan State. Bill Mallory lost his first two bowl games at IU before winning the 1987 Liberty Bowl.

But, in fairness to those fans, they are the last emotional impression left on a season, the last flourish before the dye hits the paper. It’s hard to feel immediately good about the bigger picture after a defeat.

Maybe the biggest thing Indiana lost during this memorable autumn was the chance to share it with fans. Beyond the spontaneous (and relatively pedestrian) gatherings of students outside Memorial Stadium after Penn State and Michigan, the best season in Indiana’s past 30 years played out in front of largely empty stadiums.

Of course, the unreasonably flippant joke coming into the season was that Indiana should be used to mostly empty stadiums, the program’s fan support proving so fickle.

Seasons like this one change that. And I suspect this one will. Provided we’re largely on the other side of the pandemic by next fall, I’d imagine season-ticket sales and attendance numbers will both have trended sharply upward. Even more so if the Hoosiers (6-2) manage to keep a lot of this roster intact, with seniors afforded an extra year of eligibility.

Still, that fan base’s final image of IU football in the 2020 season, which stretched two days into 2021, was all too familiar — Indiana, not quite good enough once again.

It’s unfair to tar this team with the same brush as some that have come before it during what is now a six-bowl game losing streak. These Hoosiers, with or without Michael Penix, are in a different class to any other IU team that’s appeared in the postseason in this century.

But they do carry the weight of that history. And it will never be heavier than when Indiana stumbles on its biggest stages, until Indiana stumbles no more.

Saturday qualified as a stumble. The Hoosiers couldn’t figure out Ole Miss’ (5-5) tempo offense enough to slow down quarterback Matt Corral, who threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns despite missing numerous key skill players due to injuries or opt outs.

Indiana, so reliant on pressure and forcing mistakes, struggled at times simply to tackle cleanly against an Ole Miss team that finished with 493 total yards. In their last regular-season game, the Hoosiers physically dominated Wisconsin. Saturday, they could barely keep up with Ole Miss.

“I don’t know the number, but there were quite a few missed tackles,” All-Big Ten linebacker Micah McFadden said postgame. “I think the grass conditions played a factor in that, but it’s also just guys getting their cleats in the ground when they’re going tempo and making a play.”

Offensively, the Hoosiers struggled to get quarterback Jack Tuttle, making his second start in place of the injured Penix, in rhythm early.

The Rebels came into play Saturday with one of the most porous defenses in all the Power Five. But Indiana didn’t even reach the end zone until the second half. Good pressure kept Tuttle off balance and eventually separated his shoulder, and the Hoosiers turned to their run game too late.

They were much better in both the run and the pass after halftime, and for a moment looked like they might rescue a memorable victory after such a below-par first half. But Tuttle — who played the second half with that injured shoulder but was actually slightly better despite it — took a costly sack on Indiana’s last drive, before throwing two more incompletions against pressure. His last effort skipped harmlessly across the stadium turf, the Hoosiers’ dream season ending on a sour note.

“I had to give somebody a chance and I was running out of time,” Tuttle said, arm in a sling, postgame. “It just didn’t work out.”

Indiana let itself down Saturday. No one tried to say otherwise. Even Charles Campbell, who set program and bowl-game records with his field goal kicking, looked and sounded despondent postgame.

This team didn’t lose because of the 1993 Independence Bowl, or the 2007 Insight Bowl, or the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl or the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl or the 2020 Gator Bowl. It lost because it failed to perform when and where it mattered most, in a game it was rightly favored to win against an inferior Ole Miss team.

Sometimes, that happens. It’s for its faults and imperfections that we love college football, not its flawlessness.

This college football team spent an entire season changing national perception. It received conference-wide respect, became a national darling. It earned those things, not through luck or performance, but accomplishment.

It also earned the skepticism that will inevitably follow Saturday’s performance. Those same fans who delighted in wins over Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin this season will probably find it (understandably) hard to shake the disappointment of another poor performance when the lights shined brightest.

So, IU goes into another offseason still saddled with that bowl drought. It will enter next season with a preseason ranking, perhaps as high as top-15, and serious expectations for the first time in a long time. It will hope for — and likely see — significant crowds inside Memorial Stadium. They will be heartened like they haven’t in a generation. But they should be forgiven for what cynicism remains.

For a program that has accomplished so much this year, there is still work to be done in resetting perceptions closer to home.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.