Football was–and still is–secondary to basketball in Indiana before Peyton Manning came to town and, more specifically, among Indiana University supporters. Under Bill Mallory, however, football underperformed. They made their second bowl game since the 1967 Rose Bowl a year earlier while providing reliable support for Indiana basketball’s success with winning the national title in March 1987.
In 1968, Head Coach John Pont led the Hoosiers to their only Rose Bowl appearance before losing to the O.J. Simpson-led USC Trojans 14-3.
In 1979, Lee Corso and QB Tim Clifford led the Hoosiers to the Holiday Bowl, where they stunned favored BYU 38-37 in a classic.
In 1986, the Hoosiers went bowling with a 6-6 record before losing to Florida State. Expectations were at an all-time high heading into the 1987 season. Seventeen starters had returned, so expectations of another bowl trip were high. An opening season loss against Kentucky gave no hint that this year would be special; but on October 10, that all changed as Mallory led his team into Columbus for a game against the Buckeyes with Dave Schnell at quarterback and sophomore running back Anthony Thompson (later to break the NCAA record for career touchdowns) leading their ground attack.
Indiana emerged victorious, 31-10. Ohio State required a 51-yard field goal from Earle Bruce to tie it 10-10 after one half. Following intermission, however, Indiana controlled Ohio State by holding them to just ten rushing yards while Schnell threw two touchdown passes for Indiana’s stunning 31-10 win. Bruce would later call it his darkest day with the program since 1979 when he joined. Bruce would be fired shortly after that loss.
Two weeks later, Indiana made their Homecoming matchup even sweeter against Michigan. Although no one advised IU against selecting a challenging opponent for homecoming, Indiana made sure its alumni and current students had plenty to celebrate in the driving rain: Schnell led a 14-play 65-yard drive that gave Indiana an unexpected 14-10 advantage that held on throughout.
The Defense was again dominant; the Hoosiers were flying high with a legitimate shot to go to the Rose Bowl! Even after Iowa dealt them their first conference loss the next week, leaving Indiana still in control of its destiny for the Rose Bowl on November 14 against Michigan State. If Michigan State won, that meant automatic qualification; otherwise, if Indiana won, all they had to do was beat Purdue afterwards to secure their ticket to Pasadena. Hoosier fans had to think they were living in a dream world. Unfortunately, they were.
I wish Indiana played their game of the year and went straight into Pasadena; that would be nice; unfortunately, playing excellent defense and powerful running game away from home is no fairy tale.” Michigan State dominated all day against Indiana to score the win 27-3; even with this defeat, they still managed to capture the Old Oaken Bucket over Purdue and secured their best season in nearly twenty years with an 8-3 record and Peach Bowl bid against Tennessee!
Today’s version is known as the Chick-fil-A Bowl and remains one of the highlights of New Year’s Eve for those who stay home. At that time, it was still being played outdoors at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium before the Georgia Dome and Turner Field existed.
Indiana began slowly, scoring only a field goal from future NFL kicker Pete Stoyanovich before falling behind Tennessee 21-3. Schnell scored a touchdown pass to narrow their deficit to 21-10 before they began their comeback. Following another third-quarter touchdown, Mallory attempted a two-point conversion, which failed miserably; Indiana scored another touchdown before Mallory tried a two-point attempt that also failed – leaving Tennessee still up 22-21 and in position for an upset win with just a field goal victory! This game highlighted why you don’t want to chase points until late in a contest.!
Conventional wisdom now recognizes this fact; 1987 however, playing by the book put Indiana’s defense under even more stress. But Tennessee drove for a touchdown drive to win 27-22 despite this setback, and it couldn’t be denied that Mallory’s program had shown remarkable progress.
Mallory never made the Rose Bowl but enjoyed multiple postseason trips before his best team defeated Baylor in 1991’s Copper Bowl (today’s Insight Bowl). Indiana administrators would push Mallory out of Bloomington to get them “to the next level”, yet instead made things worse than they were previously. The Hoosiers, to this day, have never met the lofty levels consistently that Coach Mallory had elevated them to.
Indiana football’s decline since 1987 is a testament to what can happen when programs get greedy. Yet, in 1987, they provided their fans with plenty of good memories from Mallory; for a span of a couple of months, people cared about IU football, which has been few and far between since Bill Mallory was shown the door.
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