While the score of Tech’s fourth bowl game under Head Coach Paul Johnson was closer than the first three, the ultimate result was the same. Despite leading Utah 24-10 midway through the fourth quarter, Tech surrendered two late scores and wound up falling 30-27 in overtime to Utah in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 31.
The defeat marked Tech’s seventh consecutive loss in a bowl game, extending a streak that dates back to the 2005 season. It also marked only the second time in Johnson’s tenure that the Jackets lost a game after leading at the start of the fourth quarter. The other occasion was the Independence Bowl last season, when Tech led Air Force 7-6 after three quarters but lost 14-7.
“We had a lot of opportunities and we just couldn’t capitalize. We didn’t make enough plays and we missed three field goals. We couldn’t block in the fourth quarter and the plays we needed to make just didn’t happen,” Johnson said in an interview with ramblinwreck.com.
Sporadic mistakes in all facets of the game doomed the Jackets, who for much of the game played well on both offense and defense but continued to struggle on special teams.
Tech trailed 10-7 at halftime after squandering several scoring opportunities in the opening 30 minutes.
On Tech’s first play of the game, redshirt junior quarterback appeared to complete a 43-yard pass to junior receiver Stephen Hill, but Hill was flagged for offensive pass interference. The play was negated and Tech ended up punting three plays later.
The Jackets’ second drive of the game saw them enter field goal range thanks to a 58-yard run by redshirt senior B-back Preston Lyons, who was filling in for injured redshirt sophomore David Sims. However, sophomore kicker Justin Moore missed a 42-yard attempt off the left upright. Moore went on to miss another attempt in the second quarter to cap an 11-play drive.
Additionally, a botched center-quarterback exchange late in the first quarter—which occurred after a 20-yard run by senior A-back Embry Peeples moved Tech into Utah territory—resulted in a fumble that Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei recovered.
Tech’s lone score came on its only other first-half drive, which ended early in the second quarter. As Tech closed in on midfield, Peeples broke a 16-yard run on an option pitch, and senior B-back Preston Lyons then found daylight and ran 36 yards for a touchdown.
Defensively, the Jackets allowed the Utes to score quickly on their first possession, as Utah quarterback Jon Hays completed passes of 35 and 31 yards before hitting fullback Shawn Asiata for a one-yard touchdown pass to give Utah a 7-0 lead.
Tech locked down after that. Utah had only two first downs over its next three possessions, and even though the Utes reached the red zone on its final possession before halftime, Tech managed to hold them to a field goal and go into the half down 10-7.
In the third quarter, the Jackets were sharp on both sides of the ball and pulled ahead. The Tech defense forced a three-and-out to start the half and the Jackets’ offense took over near midfield. An eight-play drive moved the ball into the red zone, and Moore connected on a 32-yard field goal to tie the game at 10-10 with 10:27 left in the third quarter.
Before long, Tech had the ball again, and the passing game helped power the way. Washington hit Peeples for a 58-yard gain, and three plays later, Washington connected with Hill down the right sideline for a 31-yard touchdown. The score gave Tech a 17-10 lead, its first of the contest, with 4:43 left in the third quarter.
Another special teams miscue for Tech appeared to jeopardize the lead. Despite a good kickoff by redshirt sophomore kicker David Scully, the kick coverage unit failed to break through blockers, and kick returner DeVonte Christopher broke free for a 68-yard return that gave Utah the ball at Tech’s 30-yard line.
The Tech defense stepped up, though. On first down, the Jackets got plenty of pressure on Utah’s Hays, and Hays tried to make a short dump-off throw to the right side—only to throw directly to Tech redshirt freshman inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, who made the interception and outran Utah’s would-be tacklers for a 74-yard touchdown. Tech was ahead 24-10, and the lead held for two more possessions as Tech’s defense continued to harass Hays on the pass rush.
Utah began its comeback with 11:06 left in the game. Starting from their own 29, the Utes quickly drove downfield, picking up 62 yards on four rushes by running back John White IV and two screen passes to the fullback Asiata. Tech’s defense forced fourth-and-goal from the three-yard line, but Hays hit tight end Kendrick Moeai in the end zone for a touchdown with 6:42 left in the game.
Both teams quickly went three-and-out on their next possessions. Tech took over with 2:48 left and a chance to potentially ice the game with a first down. Two Washington runs forced Utah to burn two of its timeouts and gave Tech a makeable third-and-four from its own 26; however, a poorly relayed pitch to Roddy Jones resulted in a six-yard loss on third down and forced Tech to punt with 2:35 left.
Once again, poor special teams play came back to haunt the Jackets. Sophomore punter Sean Poole only managed a 35-yard punt, and Utah punt returner Griff McNabb found room to run, picking up 31-yards on the return. The result was that Utah took over at Tech’s 24-yard line with 2:21 left.
After a one-yard run by White, Hays tried to take a shot at the end zone, but pressure forced the pass to fall incomplete. On third down, Hays tried to hit Christopher—who was in single coverage against redshirt sophomore corner Jemea Thomas—in the left corner of the end zone, but the pass once more fell incomplete. On the fourth-and-long play, Tech lined up in man coverage, and Christopher was once again one-on-one with Thomas; Hays threw to him again, and this time Christopher made the catch for the game-tying touchdown, evening the score at 24-24 with 1:32 left.
Despite the short window of time remaining, Washington managed to drive Tech down the field on 10 plays, rushing for 26 yards himself and completing two passes to give Tech the ball at the Utah 31-yard line with time for one last play.
Johnson called for a field goal, but instead of sending the struggling Moore, he called on Scully, the kickoff specialist, for the 48-yard attempt. Scully’s kick had more than enough distance but missed wide right, sending the game to overtime.
Utah won the toss and chose to play defense first, so Tech’s offense took the field once more. The Jackets opened with two pass plays that both went to Lyons for a total of eight yards, but on third-and-2, Utah shut down a midline keeper play to force fourth down. Rather than attempt a conversion, Tech sent Moore out, and the sophomore connected on the 34-yard try to give Tech a 27-24 lead.
Utah’s offense was rolling by this point. After five plays, the Utes had third-and-goal from the Tech three-yard line. A false start penalty pushed them five yards back, but Utah went with a draw play and White found the end zone from eight yards out, giving Utah a 30-27 victory.
The fact that the game marked Tech’s seventh straight bowl loss overshadowed some strong individual performances for the Jackets. Washington had an efficient game, rushing for 96 yards and completing 11 of 15 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. Lyons, in his final game in a Tech uniform, had 18 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown. Peeples had 117 total yards, with 59 on the ground and 58 on a third-quarter reception.
On the defensive end, redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Daniel Drummond led the way with 12 tackles. Thomas had eight tackles, including a sack, and broke up two passes, despite giving up Utah’s last touchdown in regulation. Attaochu forced a fumble and had seven tackles of his own, including three for losses.