PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It could stand as the ugliest game Indiana will play all season.
It will be remembered as the win Indiana needed, but for little else on a day when the Hoosiers committed four turnovers and had to deal with a kicking game that has utterly fallen apart.
Yet, the defense held strong to help IU capture the result it required in a 33-27 victory over lowly Rutgers on Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium.
It was a come-from-behind win for an Indiana team that now needs only one more victory to reach bowl eligibility with three games to play. The Hoosiers (5-4, 3-3) host No. 20 Penn State next Saturday.
The margins for error along the course to that bowl eligibility are noticeably thin for IU at this point, and while coach Kevin Wilson doesn’t regard reaching the six-win threshold as his ultimate goal at Indiana, failing to beat a poorly-equipped Rutgers team would be a sign for serious concern.
But Indiana showed a will to win when it needed to most. Doing so provided the reward.
“Today, we didn’t play smart all the time,” Wilson said. “We didn’t play horrible. There was some good football. There was some not-smart, negative football that can beat you, but I think our will to win was pretty good, especially defensively and with some of those kids making one-on-one plays.”
Defensive coordinator Tom Allen’s unit held the Scarlet Knights to 203 yards on 59 plays across Rutgers’ final 15 drives. Of those 15 drives, 11 resulted in a three-and-out, including seven in a row.
That performance was important given how dangerously close Indiana flirted with disaster, especially during a dreadful second quarter.
That stretch followed an early 13-7 Indiana lead, which was built on a 59-yard run by option quarterback Zander Diamont and a 36-yard reception by Ricky Jones.
Signs of trouble, however, were becoming visible by the end of the first quarter.
A 54-yard field goal attempt by Griffin Oakes was blocked. Starting quarterback Richard Lagow was intercepted on back-to-back passes. The Hoosiers failed to convert a pair of fourth-down opportunities and, in between, Diamont fumbled the ball on the edge of the red zone, leading to a 75-yard scoop and score for Darnell Davis.
That stretch of trouble added up to a 17-13 Rutgers halftime advantage.
“The turnovers were bad,” Wilson said. “We had four. You are lucky to win on the road with that. With the kicking errors we had in the PAT and field goal team, we are very fortunate to win.”
Indiana’s deficit, which swelled to 11 points at the start of the third quarter after a fumbled kick return by Devonte Williams led to a Rutgers score, was made more frustrating by the failures of the kicking unit.
In addition to an earlier block from 54 yards out, Oakes also had a 20-yard attempt blocked in the third quarter. In the same period, he missed altogether on a 42-yard attempt. Two point-after attempts were also botched.
IU began the game with backup Aaron Del Grosso handling the opening kickoff, but Wilson went with Oakes on field goals and extra point attempts. Punter Joseph Gedeon struggled with his holding responsibilities, too.
“We have an issue with the holder and kicker,” Wilson said. “It’s confidence issue. We started the game with our other kicker and he didn’t kick well, although he’s done well in practice. Those guys are good but they are a little psycho right now. Down the stretch we are going to need to kick well in the three weeks coming.”
IU’s defense responded with a strong finish against Rutgers’ hapless offense. The Hoosiers’ offensive fortunes, meanwhile, turned midway through the third quarter when Camion Patrick skied for a highlight-worthy 40-yard catch above the pylon. The score cut Indiana’s deficit to 24-20 before Devine Redding put the Hoosiers ahead for good.
A wide running lane paved the way for a 34-yard touchdown run that gave IU a 26-24 advantage with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Redding found the end zone again in the fourth quarter, swinging out of the backfield for a 10-yard touchdown reception on a critical third down deep in Rutgers territory. The score was made possible by a critical fumble recovery by Ricky Jones moments earlier.
It was the kind of competitive play Indiana needed much more of on Saturday.
“(We had) some guys making some plays,” Wilson said. “There were some one-on-one plays. Camion Patrick makes a big one-on-one (play). Ricky Jones recovering a fumble was probably the biggest one-on-one play of the day. I don’t know how he got it because it was their ball, I thought. He just outfought a guy because of his will to win.”
That was a mindset that saved Indiana on a day when mistakes and stumbles nearly tripped the Hoosiers out of the gate in November.