SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After the final play of Indiana’s season, his last-second heave deflected and rolling along the turf, Richard Lagow lay prone on the field at Levi’s Stadium, his face staring into the ground.
Fittingly, IU’s season finale progressed much like its season at large, with a stop-and-start offense and a defense that supplied the Hoosiers with their edge.
But once again, the kinds of shortcomings and sloppiness that delivered frustration to a season of promise ultimately spoiled Indiana’s second consecutive postseason appearance.
Utah kicker Andy Phillips kicked a 27-yard field goal with 1:24 remaining to lift the No. 19 Utes to a 26-24 victory over Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl on Wednesday, making sure IU’s 25-year bowl victory drought didn’t end here.
“I’ve coached 25 years now and usually the things that happen during the season, they often bite you at the end,” said IU coach Tom Allen, who was coaching his first game as a college head coach. “Whatever challenges you have during the season, they have a way of showing up at critical times.”
IU (6-7) recorded a season-best five sacks, including two by linebacker Tegray Scales, who was recognized as the bowl’s defensive player of the game. It was strong pressure put on Utah’s offensive line, which entered the postseason having allowed 1.8 sacks per game.
The Indiana special teams unit, too, gave the Hoosiers a boost to start the game when Greg Gooch forced a fumble on the opening kickoff and Donavan Hale recovered it at the Utah 11. It was a jolt of momentum for IU, which found the end zone three plays later on a seven-yard strike from Richard Lagow to Mitchell Paige.
Lagow had his moments, both good and bad. He was intercepted once when he underthrew a deep ball intended for Ricky Jones into double coverage early in the second half. He completed merely 14 of his 39 throws, though he was not always served well by his receivers, who were responsible for a handful of drops.
It was Zander Diamont who helped supply IU’s second touchdown, making a cameo on a drive late in the second quarter. At that point, IU was trailing 17-10, falling behind after a strip sack of Lagow and a fumble by running back Devine Redding led to touchdowns for the Utes (9-4).
Diamont entered and, after handing off to Ricky Brookins and keeping one for himself, threw a 36-yard touchdown to Nick Westbrook to tie the game entering the halftime intermission.
It was a major jolt delivered by Diamont, who strutted his way down the field to celebrate the score with his teammates. Allen said he considered inserting Diamont again at times during the second half, but after conversing with his assistants, declined to make the move.
“They were playing so much zero coverage and when he’s in the game, they’re going to add the extra hat on him,” Allen said. “It really kind of took it away. Actually, that’s why I believe we scored with him because we took a chance and threw the ball deep and got a one-on-one matchup on the perimeter because they were doing that. They were numerically outnumbering you at the point of attack, which was making it tough. We did discuss it, but we chose to obviously not go with him the second half.”
Utah used field goals of 48 and 41 yards to take a 23-17 lead by the end of the third quarter. Just as the Utes were driving for more points early in the final period, the Hoosiers’ defense came up big.
Cornerback Tyler Green stripped a ball from running back Zack Moss and safety Chase Dutra recovered, giving IU the ball at its own 40-yard line. 11 plays and 60 yards later, the Hoosiers were in the end zone on a three-yard carry by Redding that put them ahead 24-23.
All told, IU forced four fumbles and intercepted a pass.
“They were ripping at the ball and doing everything a good defense is coached to do,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
IU’s closed the season with another solid effort — doing so without second-leading tackler Marcus Oliver, who did not dress for the season finale. He wasn’t the only missing Hoosier, either. Boundary corner A’Shon Riggins also did not dress. Dameon Willis made his first career start for Oliver, while Green started in place of Riggins.
“(Oliver) had an injury,” Allen said. “We were trying to get him back. It’s kind of one that nagged the whole season. He battled through it and tried to get it fixed, but we really didn’t have a choice. The hope was to get him ready to play and couldn’t do that. It was in his best interest for his future not to risk it. That was a huge void, but it’s part of it and other guys have to step up.”
That’s what happened late in the fourth quarter, when the Hoosiers had a chance to extend their advantage to four points.
Safety Jonathan Crawford forced and recovered a fumble at the IU 29, and the Hoosiers pushed as far as the Utah 23. That’s where Griffin Oakes attempted a 40-yard field goal, but missed the mark.
On the ensuing drive, Utah running back Joe Williams picked up 64 of the drive’s 68 total yards, setting up Phillips for the game-winning 27-yard kick.
Williams earned offensive most valuable player options after rushing for 222 yards and a score, while averaging 8.5 yards per carry.
“It sucks, honestly,” right tackle Dan Feeney said. “… It was just tough. You don’t want to go out on a loss, but unfortunately that’s how it goes.”