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Tom Allen, 1-on-1: Preparing For, and Playing in, Bowl Game 'Was Nearly Impossible'

Reeling from COVID-19 issues that sidelined 30 percent of his team – including several starters – Tom Allen's Indiana team never had full practices in trying to prepare for Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, and hot weather on game day made it even harder on guys who hadn't practiced for three weeks.
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Fifth in a series

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – There were a lot of angry Indiana football fans at the end of the regular season, because they thought the conspiracy theorists were conniving to ruin Indiana's amazing 2020 season.

First, it was  the Big Ten, changing its own rules to get Ohio State in the conference title game – at Indiana's expense. Then the College Football Playoff committee left Indiana out of a New Year's Six bowl game despite being a top-7 team, relegating the Hoosiers to the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

Tom Allen never really joined the argument, for two big reasons. One, because he has Tampa roots, he was actually very excited to be taking a team to the Outback Bowl. He had two dozen Florida players on his roster, many of them from the Tampa Bay area.

But secondly, and most importantly, he was more concerned about finding enough players to simply compete in a bowl game. He had serious doubts they could do that for a long time.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference title games were played late, the weekend of Dec. 18-19. So the bowl games came up quick, just two weeks later. 

And Allen's roster was decimated.

"That's the thing that people don't understand. We couldn't even practice,'' Allen said during an exclusive 35-minute interview with HoosiersNow. "Thirty percent of our team was out – and a lot of them were very key pieces in what we do – and there were others that were just coming back after not being able to do anything for three weeks.

"We never had a full practice (in Bloomington). They had all that testing to go through, and all the cardiac testing before they were fully released. They were slowly brought back before they were cleared. Most of them didn't even practice until we got to Florida. It had lasting ramifications, no question.''

Indiana drew Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, and preparing for Lane Kiffin's high-flying offense wasn't easy with a skeleton crew. Several offensive starters were out of practice too that week because of the 17-day COVID protocols that were in place.

"It was a very difficult preparation, being totally honest with you. Key guys that we count on, they didn't even practice until we got to Florida,'' Allen said. And once they got to Tampa, they were greeted with plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the high 80s. 

That's hot for December.

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"The thing that really compounded it too was the temperature on game day,'' Allen said. "It was really hot, and there were a lot of guys who weren't really ready in terms on not having a chance to prepare, and it just made it worse as the game played out. You just try to make the best of it

"Was it a variable? Sure it was. That's part of it, and it wasn't meant to be.''

Indiana lost 26-20 and quarterback Jack Tuttle, who was making just his second career start, injured his shoulder early in the game. His arm went numb at times, and he lost his zip on his fastball. But he fought through the pain, and kept playing. Indiana had a shot to win late, but couldn't pull it off.

"We still had our chances. We were down six with the ball. You go down and score and kick the extra point and you win the game,'' Allen said. "We didn't finish it, and no excuses. That was on us. But that was a goal, to win a bowl game, and we have to use that as motivation going forward.''

Tuttle was 26-for-45 passing, but for just 201 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. The loss ended Indiana's season with a 6-2 record, and they were ranked No. 11 in the final AP poll, their highest finish since 1967. Tuttle did all he could, despite playing without much arm strength.

"Jack, when you go back, I relied solely on the doctors,'' Allen said. "Did he play through pain? Yes. It was a legitimate situation and he was not the same after that hit. They gave me the green light to go that he couldn't hurt it any worse, and he could defend himself for sure. Getting hit in your throwing arm, it affected his ability to throw accurately and his affected his arm strength, which is one of his strengths. He's got a big arm.

"He's a tough, tough kid. He battled and gave us his best, and that's all you can ever ask for.''

Allen never makes excuses, and I'm not making any for him, either. But it was a shame the way that memorable 2020 season had to end, first losing two tries at playing the Old Oaken Bucket game with Purdue, and then preparing for a bowl game with much of his roster sidelined.

All in all though, it was a spectacular season, despite everything the world tried to throw at the Hoosiers.

"Winning a bowl game, that was one of our goals,'' Allen said. "And now, it's providing plenty of motivation coming into this season.''

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth of a seven-part series from publisher Tom Brew's exclusive one-on-one interview with Indiana football coach Tom Allen. Next up: Tom Allen and Mike Woodson.

  • TOM ALLEN, Part 1: It's finally time for Indiana to be able to talk about contending for a Big Ten title, and coach Tom Allen has told his players exactly that. CLICK HERE
  • TOM ALLEN, Part 2: Michael Penix Jr. has been great when he's been on the field, but has been injured three seasons in a row. Keeping him healthy is a must. CLICK HERE
  • TOM ALLEN, Part 3: Indiana's dream season in 2020 almost didn't happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's hard for Tom Allen to think about all those great moments not happening. CLICK HERE
  • TOM ALLEN, Part 4: Indiana and Purdue tried to play twice in December, but COVID issues were ripping through both programs simultaneously. CLICK HERE
  • INDIANA 2021 SCHEDULE: Here is Indiana's complete 2021 football season, with 12 regular season games, nine in the league and three nonconference games. CLICK HERE
  • HER BOYS ARE HOME: Darnell McCullough has all of her boys staying home at Indiana, with three of them committing to the Hoosiers in the past two weeks. "Who's got it better than me?'' she says. Here's the behind-the-scenes story on how it all came together. CLICK HERE