Bill Mallory came to Bloomington in 1984 and inherited a football program that was on hard times. Since their 1967 Rose Bowl trip, the Indiana Hoosiers only had three winning seasons. Mallory’s first year was an 0-11 train wreck, but the program quickly got better. By 1986 he started a run that saw the Hoosiers get six bowl bids in eight years. The 1991 Indiana football team was squarely in that tradition and had a dynamic running back to boot.
To call Vaughn Dunbar the key to the Indiana offense and their success would be to understate the case. Dunbar ran for over 1,800 yards in 1991 and won the Big Ten rushing title by six hundred yards. Lest you think that Dunbar’s yardage totals were just a function of a heavy workload, he also averaged five yards per carry. The Fort Wayne product was a first-team All-American.
Trent Green was at quarterback and while he was overlooked in the moment, he went on to become a Pro Bowler in the NFL. Green completed 59 percent of his passes—a high percentage in the world of 1991 for 7.7 yards-per-attempt. Mistakes were what got him in trouble. The 14 interceptions playing in a system built around running the ball and playing defense were too high and nearly costly at one of this season’s big moments.
Green had a balanced set of targets. Eddie Thomas was the top receiver, catching 54 passes for nearly seven hundred yards. Thomas Lewis was in his sophomore year and eventually become a first-round NFL draft choice. Lewis caught 39 balls for 581 yards in 1991. Rod Coleman was a solid tight end, catching 33 passes and Dunbar caught 29 more out of the backfield.
Indiana’s offense ranked a respectable 38th in the country in points scored. The defense didn’t have name players, but was actually a little bit better, ranking 32nd in points allowed.
The Hoosiers weren’t known for playing tough non-conference games, but they made a trip to the northern part of the state to play Notre Dame. The Irish were in their heyday under Lou Holtz and ranked #7 in the country. Indiana took a 49-27 loss.
Kentucky and Missouri were poor opponents and Indiana did not play well in their next two games. They barely escaped the Wildcats 13-10 at home and a trip to Mizzou ended in a 27-27 tie (overtime did not arrive in college football until 1996). Indiana was 1-1-1 heading into the rigors of Big Ten play.
Michigan State and Northwestern were not good teams in 1991 and the Hoosiers got into gear. They won both games by a combined score of 75-6 and had the fan base dreaming of a possible breakthrough when they visited Ann Arbor the next week.
Michigan was on their way to a Rose Bowl season and wide receiver Desmond Howard was on his way to the Heisman Trophy. It was the kind of game Mallory was never quite able to get over the hump in and this one was a perfect example. Indiana played tough, hard and well, but they came up short 24-16.
A road trip to Madison followed where Barry Alvarez was still a couple years from turning Wisconsin into a winner. Indiana won 28-20. They came home to Bloomington and hammered lowly Minnesota 34-8. With a conference record of 4-1 and an overall mark of 5-2-1, the Hoosiers were in great position to get another bowl bid and had a legitimate shot at making that bowl date a little more prestigious.
That would hinge on two tough road trips. Iowa was a Top 10 team with the conference’s best quarterback in Matt Rodgers. Ohio State didn’t have a vintage Buckeye team, but they were still Ohio State and still had a good team. Each road trip represented another opportunity for IU to break through.
Once again, they couldn’t quite do it. The Hoosiers lost 38-21 at Iowa. The game in Columbus was there for the taking, but a couple Buckeye field goals in the fourth quarter sunk IU, 20-16.
Indiana was licking its wounds and now needed to beat Purdue in the season finale to qualify for a bowl. The Boilermakers were not a good team and came to Bloomington with a record of 4-6. But this was the rivalry game for the Old Oaken Bucket and Indiana nearly came undone.
Purdue scored an early touchdown, although a missed extra point proved to be foreshadowing. Indiana then seemed to take the game over. Dunbar ran for a touchdown. Green threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Lewis and a 13-yard scoring pass to Thomas. By halftime, Green had 215 passing yards and the Hoosiers had a 24-6 lead.
All IU had to do was put the game in the defense and Dunbar’s hands. But it didn’t prove that simple. A Green pass bounced off the hands of Coleman and into the hands of a Purdue defender. That set up a field goal. Indiana drove to the Boilermaker 5-yard line, in position for a lockup score. Dunbar fumbled it away. Purdue drove the length of the field for a touchdown. But they missed the two-point conversion, so the lead stayed at nine, 24-15.
Then Dunbar fumbled the kickoff. Fortunately the defense held and Purdue missed a field goal, but Indiana wasn’t done handing out opportunities. Green threw another interception and the Boilermakers drove the short field for a touchdown to make it 24-22.
The Indiana offense was completely bogged down. Purdue drove in position for two more field goal shots that could have given them the lead. But attempts from 40 & 34 yards missed. The Hoosiers survived 24-22, on the strength of three missed field goals and a missed PAT by the Boilermakers. As victories go, it wasn’t inspiring. But it brough IU the Bucket and it brought them a Copper Bowl bid.
Baylor had gone 8-3 and was the opponent for the Tucson-based game that went down on New Year’s Eve night. While it would be a stretch to call this a “statement game” for Indiana, it was the kind of bowl they really needed to win. And they played their best game of the year.
Dunbar ran for 106 yards on 28 carries and Green was 11/21 for 165 yards. But the reason Indiana won is that the defense was dominant. With linebacker Mark Hagen making nine solo tackles and getting a sack, Baylor only threatened twice. One of those drives ended when IU thwarted a fake field goal, the other when they forced a turnover. Indiana cruised to a 24-0 win.
The quality of the bowl victory, along with the difficulty of the schedule makes this 1991 Indiana team a prime candidate for Bill Mallory’s best edition in Bloomington. The 1988 team finished with a better record (8-3-1 to 7-4-1) and also won a bowl game. But if you change out Notre Dame for, let’s say Ball State, on the ’91 schedule, the record would be the same and IU might have gotten into the national rankings.
Either way, the Mallory years were good ones and 1991 was a showcase example.