The Tennessee Volunteers won their sixth straight game by defeating the Indiana Hoosiers 23-22 in the Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida, Thursday night.
It's the 8-5 Volunteers' first bowl win since the 2016 Music City Bowl, and it looked to be unlikely for the majority of the evening.
Tennessee trailed 22-9 with 10:27 remaining in the fourth quarter. Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was pulled in the third quarter following a pick-six but re-entered for backup Brian Maurer after one series. Guarantano then led the Volunteers on back-to-back touchdown drives late in the final period to take the lead.
Quavaris Crouch punched in a one-yard touchdown, then the Volunteers recovered an onside kick before Eric Gray rushed in a 16-yard score.
Indiana had ample time to regain the lead. The Hoosiers regained possession with 3:51 left, and the drive got off to a promising start with a 39-yard pass from Peyton Ramsey to Ty Fryfogle. However, the drive stalled. Darrell Taylor sacked Ramsey for a nine-yard loss before Logan Justus missed a 52-yard field goal.
The Hoosiers had yet another opportunity at the 48-second mark. Ramsey again started the drive hot, hitting a 24-yard pass and a 12-yard pass back-to-back before recording four consecutive incompletions to end the game on downs.
While this year marked the program's first winning season since 2007, the 8-5 Hoosiers have not won a bowl since the 1991 Copper Bowl. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they were seven minutes away from snapping the longest such drought among Power 5 schools.
Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano: 221 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
Tennessee RB Eric Gray: 14 carries, 86 yards, 1 TD
Tennessee RB Ty Chandler: 12 carries, 35 yards
Tennessee WR Josh Palmer: 6 catches, 68 yards
Indiana QB Peyton Ramsey: 227 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT; 17 carries, 54 yards, 1 TD
Indiana TE Peyton Hendershot: 6 catches, 67 yards
Indiana WR Ty Fryfogle: 3 catches, 63 yards
Tennessee's Comeback Season Appropriately Ends With Unlikely Comeback
The Volunteers defense held Indiana to 69 total yards of offense in the first half, yet the Hoosiers entered halftime trailing just 6-3.
Put more simply, even with the win, this team is starkly lopsided. Tennessee owns the 28th-ranked total defense and 29th-ranked scoring defense opposite a 98th-ranked scoring offense and 100th-ranked total offense.
Inconsistency at quarterback has been the main culprit. Guarantano suffered a broken wrist on Oct. 26, while Maurer suffered concussions against Mississippi State and Alabama earlier that month.
Injuries did not factor into the outing against Indiana, but inconsistency certainly carried over. Guarantano threw only two interceptions over the five games Tennessee won consecutively prior to this matchup, but the redshirt junior was picked off twice by the Hoosiers. One was taken back 63 yards by Jamar Johnson for six points to break the game open and give Indiana a 16-6 lead.
Guarantano was replaced on the ensuing drive by Maurer.
Maurer didn't last, however, going 1-of-3 for 17 yards with eight rushing yards on one drive before Guarantano was tapped to re-enter:
Guarantano indeed proved capable of leading the Volunteers to victory from behind. In fact, he led a historic comeback:
Questions surrounded second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt's job security when Tennessee started 1-4. He turned the season around with the same fervor necessary to defeat Indiana despite subpar quarterback play:
The Volunteers last lost on Oct. 19 to Alabama. Three of their five losses came to ranked opponents (No. 5 Georgia, No. 9 Florida and No. 13 Alabama). If Pruitt can nail down the quarterback situation, Tennessee could contend with those teams next season and beyond.
Peyton Ramsey Sees Gutsy Second-Half Come Up Short
Ramsey was named after Peyton Manning, and he nearly beat the Hall of Famer's alma mater.
The redshirt junior quarterback was sacked four times and faced pressure more often than not. He entered the locker room with 41 yards passing and an interception on the Hoosiers' opening drive.
Ramsey responded with a 12-play, 69-yard touchdown drive to begin the second half, and it ended with him punching it in from one-yard out. That was Indiana's only offensive touchdown, and it was also indicative of how Ramsey carried himself down the stretch of the regular season.
The Hoosiers lost regular starter Michael Penix Jr. to season-ending surgery in early November. At the time, Indiana had won four in a row and was off to its best start since 1993 at 7-2.
Ramsey had played while Penix was still available, but the last three games fell squarely on his shoulders. Indiana went 1-2 with losses to No. 10 Penn State and No. 14 Michigan. He threw for 925 yards, four touchdowns and one pick during that stretch.
He was not great by any means, but he did enough to put Indiana in position for its first nine-win season since 1967.
What will haunt Ramsey and the Hoosiers most are the four straight incomplete passes to turn the ball over on downs and end the game.
"It hurts, especially for those guys in the locker room that are seniors that have gotten us to where we are now," Ramsey told reporters afterward.
Penix will be back, and Ramsey could be, too. Then Indiana can try for that elusive nine-win campaign again.