Florida bowl brings eyeballs, opportunity for IU

If TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville truly sells out for Indiana-Tennessee, as Gator Bowl CEO Rick Catlett expects, the family and friends of IU’s players will have done their part.

Fort Lauderdale native Tiawan Mullen thinks he will have about a dozen people in attendance to support him. Tampa’s Micah McFadden estimated 40-plus.

Whop Philyor, also from Tampa, took his forecast to a nearly astronomical number.

“Just for me? Probably about 200,” Philyor said. “I’m not even going to lie.”

That figure was somewhat tamped down from the colorful receiver’s original guess, which was “the whole Tampa.”

“That’s why the game is sold out,” Philyor said, “because the whole Tampa coming.”

While the game is still more than two weeks away, the Hoosiers’ excitement for the final chapter of the 2019 season is undeniable. A bowl game was something IU failed to secure in the ‘17 and ‘18 seasons.

And a bowl game in Florida, the home of 26 Hoosiers, certainly brings added meaning. It’s the second-most represented state on IU’s roster, behind 34 in-state athletes. And those 26 aren’t just average contributors.

Florida is home to senior receiver Nick Westbrook, who is 20 yards behind Shane Wynn for seventh on IU’s all-time receiving list. It’s where linebacker Reakwon Jones, another of the program’s veteran leaders, was born and raised.

It’s where Mullen, McFadden, James Head Jr., Juwan Burgess, Michael Ziemba — a whole slew of defensive pieces — originated. Safeties Khalil Bryant and Devon “Monster” Matthews are from Jacksonville, more specifically.

“We wanted the best bowl possible,” Bryant said. “To get the Gator Bowl, that’s a big plus. That’s home.”

In a city where the 5-foot-10 senior first picked up a ball, that’s where he will set it down. He also gets to take on a Southeastern Conference opponent.

More than just its location, an appearance in the Gator Bowl has regional significance for the Hoosiers. Many of IU’s Florida natives grew up watching SEC football.

McFadden’s dad is an alum of Florida. Jones, who hails from the state’s panhandle, saw either Florida or Alabama hoodies throughout his hometown of Lynn Haven.

“Just being able to go home and play against an SEC team, where kids from Florida, or down South, all they think about is going to SEC schools, and not having that opportunity to go there, I’m going to have a chip on my shoulder and ready to prove something to all the SEC schools that didn’t offer me or didn’t take any of the kids from Florida,” Jones said.

“We came all the way up here to make a change. We are going in with a big chip on our shoulder with a lot to prove.”

Jones, Westbrook, and Bryant were part of an earlier wave of Florida commits, while McFadden, Mullen, Head, and others have continued the trend. Together, they have helped boost IU to its first eight-win season since 1993.

McFadden and Jones are IU’s first- and third-leading tacklers, respectively. Jones was originally a Florida Atlantic commit but didn’t otherwise have much interest from within the state. McFadden was pursued by Boston College, Toledo, and Southern Miss, among others.

Mullen was offered by Ole Miss, as well as Nebraska and TCU, but schools in the backyard, such as Florida, Florida State, and Miami, never came through with a scholarship.

Recently named a Freshman All-American by outlets like The Athletic and 247Sports, the ever-confident Mullen isn’t consumed by who or who didn’t offer him. But the corner who coined the term “the new wave” for his 2019 class understands the importance of a good showing in a Big Ten-SEC bowl matchup.

“It’s very important,” Mullen said. “I’m pretty sure, coming in, they have us as the underdogs. Everybody sees every game. We are coming to compete and win those types of games. We just want to compete and have fun.”

They will not only have a national audience for a 7 p.m. kick on Jan. 2 but familiar faces in the stands. Philyor, the Hoosiers’ leading receiver, thought about his mom, who doesn’t exactly love midwest weather.

“She watches me every week, but she’s happy she gets to see me in the heat this time, instead of the cold and the rain,” Philyor said.

The location of the Gator Bowl offers other perks, as well. McFadden, for example, said he will be able to spend four or five days at home for Christmas. He will just meet the Hoosiers in Jacksonville when they travel down.

Until then, the Hoosiers remain in Bloomington, practicing indoors at John Mellencamp Pavilion. They remain focused on the task at hand.

“I think it’s huge for recruiting, all that stuff, and it’s a pride thing, too,” McFadden said. “SEC versus Big Ten, some of the best conferences in the nation. Definitely a big matchup for us, and we are taking it as it is.

“We’re trying not to overthink it. Just do what we do and focus on us throughout each week.”

5 comments

  1. One can only hope that there are as many IU fans in the stands as there will be Vols. It would be really cool if the game is sold out.

  2. What puts my headline in brilliant lights is the evening being the largest exposure to future ACC/SEC HS recruits, their families and coaches IUFB has ever enjoyed in this region. The Hoosier image should shine brightly during the whole stay in Jacksonville. Lots to like about this particular bowl game for IU.

    1. HC, I agree with you about the best part of playing in this Bowl. It also ties our southern players into the HS athletes minds that IU can be the place for them.

  3. I’ll be in the jungle, so I’m gonna miss the entire bowl season sans national championship game.

    Enjoy the game everybody!

  4. DD, take care will in the jungle as there are many dangers some of them you can’t see with diseases that lurk around. See you when you return and I hope you can catch up on the football scene once you are back.

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