JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — It’s been more than 50 years since Indiana won nine games in a season. The perennial Big Ten doormat, known more for its basketball prowess than its football progress, has a chance to match its most wins in program history Thursday night against streaking Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
The Hoosiers (8-4) have eight wins for the first time since 1993 and are in a bowl game for just the 12th time — and first since 2016. It’s clear validation for third-year coach Tom Allen, a longtime assistant and Indiana native who was promoted following Kevin Wilson’s resignation. Allen was rewarded with a new contract last month that more than doubled his annual salary.
“It means a lot when people believe in you,” Allen said, choking back tears. “I’m an emotional guy. It means a lot. It’s my home, it’s personal.”
Allen is 18-19 in three seasons, the most wins by any Indiana coach in his first three years. He has a chance to get the program to nine wins for the first time since 1967.
Senior linebacker Reakwon Jones has enjoyed the team’s modest turnaround, which included beating every unranked team on the schedule this season.
“It’s a blessing and just a testament to all the work that the people in this facility and this program put in, from the players to the coaches to the training staff to the strength and conditioning,” Jones said. “It’s just a true blessing and we want to take full advantage of this opportunity.
“We know what’s at stake here and what we can do.”
The Volunteers (7-5) have seemingly turned a corner as well under second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt. Tennessee closed the regular season with five consecutive wins to earn its first bowl trip since 2016.
“You’ve got to look in the mirror, and I feel like our staff did, our players did, and everybody said, ‘How can I do better?'” Pruitt said. “It’s easy to always point the finger to somebody else. The men on our staff, the men on our team did not do that. … We stuck together.”
Tennessee receiver Jauan Jennings, who leads the nation in broken tackles by receivers, is suspended for the first half. Jennings stepped on the face of Vanderbilt punt returner Justice Shelton-Mosley in the team’s regular-season finale.
Officials did not penalize Jennings at the time. The Southeastern Conference reviewed the incident and determined Jennings committed a “flagrant personal foul” and suspended him for a half.
The fifth-year senior addressed the incident Wednesday for the first time.
“It was unfortunate because it was an accident,” Jennings said. “So just getting mentally and physically prepared for this game is all I’m focused on. Not really too focused on what I’m going to do in the second half. I’m here just being ready for this team. They are going to have my back and I can’t wait to come out there and have theirs.”
Added Pruitt: “In no way does that depict who Jauan is or the circumstances around it.”
New Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer will call plays for Indiana one last time. DeBoer took the job at Fresno in mid-December after Jeff Tedford retired for medical reasons.
DeBoer served as Fresno State’s offensive coordinator in 2017 and 2018.
Indiana boasted the No. 2 offense in the Big Ten this season, averaging 443.6 yards a game under DeBoer.
“For him staying in the bowl game, he’s finishing what he started, which says a lot about him,” Pruitt said.
Indiana running back Stevie Scott and guard Simon Stepaniak are questionanble for the game, and Tennessee center Brandon Kennedy is considered a game-time decision.
Scott suffered a knee injury in a loss to Michigan in late November and didn’t play against Purdue. He has 845 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns this season. Stepaniak, who has started 31 games in college, suffered an undisclosed injury in practice last week.
Kennedy had a knee cleaned out following the regular season. He returned to practice last week. He is the only Tennessee lineman to start at the same position for all 12 games.