Football was—and is–second fiddle to basketball in the state Indiana, especially in the days before Peyton Manning came to the state and most especially for loyalists of Indiana University. But the 1987 Indiana football team was an improving program under Bill Mallory. One year earlier they had made their first bowl game since the 1967 Rose Bowl and 1987 saw them be a reliable supporting actor to the basketball program that had won a national title in March.
17 starters were returning to the football team so hopes for a second bowl trip were high. An early loss to Kentucky didn’t give any sign of a special year, but on October 10 that all changed. Mallory took his team to Columbus, with Dave Schnell at quarterback and sophomore running back Anthony Thompson—the man who two years later would break the NCAA record for career touchdowns—leading the ground attack.
It took a 51-yard field goal for the Buckeyes to tie it 10-10 after one half and the Hoosiers dominated after intermission. They held Ohio State to ten rushing yards in the second half, Schnell threw a pair of TDs and Indiana had a stunning 31-10 win. Buckeye coach Earle Bruce, who would be fired in November, called it “the darkest day” since he’d been with the program, going back to 1979.
Two weeks later things got even better for Indiana. The Homecoming opponent was Michigan. While apparently no one told IU about picking an easy opponent for homecoming, the Hoosiers made sure the alums and current students had plenty to celebrate. In a driving rain, and trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, Schnell led a 14-play, 65-yard drive for a 14-10 lead that would stand up.
The defense was again dominant in the second half and even though the team took its first conference loss at Iowa the following week, they still reached a November 14 game at Michigan State in control of their destiny for the Rose Bowl. The stakes for Indiana’s November battle with Michigan State were simple. If the Spartans won, they were in the Rose Bowl. If the Hoosiers won, they needed only beat Purdue the following week.
If I can paraphrase Morgan Freeman from Shawshank Redemption—“I’d like to tell you Indiana came out, played its game of the year and went to Pasadena. I’d like to tell you that. But playing a great defense and a powerful running game on the road is no fairy tale.” Michigan State pounded IU from start to finish and won 27-3. The Hoosiers still won the Old Oaken Bucket over Purdue and at 8-3 concluded its best season in nearly twenty years by getting a Peach Bowl bid to play Tennessee.
Today, the Peach Bowl is known as the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the highlight of New Year’s Eve for those of us who don’t go out anywhere. It was still in Atlanta at this time, although played outdoors in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, where the Falcons and Braves used to play before the Georgia Dome and Turner Field came into existence.
Indiana got off to a slow start, only able to get a field goal from future NFL kicker Pete Stoyanovich and falling behind the Vols 21-3. A touchdown pass by Schnell cut the lead to 21-10 and the Hoosiers kept coming back. After a third-quarter touchdown, Mallory went for two to try and cut the lead to a field goal. It missed. Indiana scored another touchdown and Mallory tried to get the failed two-pointer back. That one missed. Instead of being up 24-21, the lead was only 22-21 and Tennessee could win with a field goal, with this game being another example of why you wait until into the fourth quarter before chasing points.
Conventional wisdom has come around to that way of thinking, but in 1987 going by the book had Indiana’s defense under a little extra pressure. It proved not to matter, as Tennessee drove it for a touchdown and won 27-22. The loss was disappointing, but no one could deny the progress Mallory’s program was making.
Mallory never did make the Rose Bowl, but enjoyed several more postseason trips and the best team beat Baylor in the Copper Bowl (today’s Insight Bowl) in 1991. In the mid-1990s, the same Indiana administrators that fired Bob Knight would also chase Mallory out of Bloomington, in an effort to get “to the next level.” They did, only that level was at least one floor down from what Mallory had the Hoosiers.
It’s become a textbook example of what happens to programs that get greedy, as Indiana football has never recovered. But the 1987 Indiana football team was one prominent example of the good years that Mallory provided the fans in a supporting role to the omnipotent basketball program.