TEAMS: Ohio Bobcats (8-4, 4-4 Mid-American Conference) vs. UL-Monroe (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt Conference)
TIME: Friday Dec. 28, 2 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: ULM -7; Over/Under 601/2
The Independence Bowl has a rich history dating back to 1976. Included in the game’s annals are Oklahoma taking its first steps to national prominence, the legendary Texas A&M – Mississippi State Snow Bowl and numerous contests settled by single digits. This year’s match-up has the potential for a high scoring, competitive affair.
Few non-automatic qualifiers were as hot as Ohio and Louisiana-Monroe back in September. ULM upset Arkansas and took Auburn to overtime, then gave Baylor all it could handle. Turns out the latter was the most impressive of the three, since we had yet to witness just how bad the Razorbacks and Tigers were.
Ohio reached the top 25 and created some very serious BCS buster buzz. The Bobcats opened the season with a win over Penn State — a win that, as the season progressed, became increasingly impressive. Ohio’s aspirations to become the first Mid-American team ever to reach a BCS bowl were mowed down in that buzzsaw that is — well, the MAC. The Bobcats watched as Kent State and Northern Illinois jockeyed for that honor, while Ohio closed the 2012 regular season with three straight losses, and four in its final five.
Head coach Frank Solich guided Ohio to its first bowl game win a season ago when Tyler Tettleton rushed in a final minute touchdown to elevate the Bobcats past Utah State. Ohio can salvage the season with a second postseason victory.
The ‘Cats are ‘dogs, though. ULM is playing what equates to a home game, traveling just 112 miles to Shreveport. The Independence Bowl organizers were probably disappointed in Louisiana Tech’s balk. A regional showdown between the Bulldogs and Warhawks might have packed the stadium. As it stands, ULM will have thousands of supporters in attendance. Ohio will be lucky to have a few hundred.
Nine wins, including one in the program’s first-ever bowl game appearance, would be the perfect cap on Todd Berry’s campaign. The ULM head coach is likely to be a hot commodity on the coaching carousel sooner than later. In the interim, he’s accomplished one of the best building jobs in college football. And that’s building without the re-; ULM has no FBS success beyond Berry’s.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Quarterbacks Kolton Browning and Tyler Tettleton capture national attention during the Warhawks and Bobcats’ hot starts. Each is a capable, dual threat playmaker. Tettleton rushed for 254 yards and four touchdowns, to go with his 2513 yards passing and 16 touchdowns. Tettleton was only intercepted three times in the regular season, giving him one of the most impressive touchdown-to-interception ratios in college football.
Browning’s 441 yards rushing led the Warhawks, but his 2830 yards passing and 27 touchdowns (accrued despite late season injuries) were the catalysts behind UL-Monroe’s 35.5 point per game offense. Browning found seven different receivers for multiple touchdowns, with Brent Leonard leading the way at 10 scores and 1042 yards.
Leonard and Je’Ron Hamm — tweeps and bloggers, keep that name in your back pockets for the fourth quarter — provide the Warhawk passing game a potent combination.
The ULM run game is anemic. Ohio’s run stopping isn’t otherworldly, but respectable enough that the Independence Bowl won’t be a star turn for the Warhawk ball carriers.
ULM can and will throw. Ohio’s offensive philosophy against the Warhawks might be less clear cut. While Tettelton is comfortable passing to Donte Foster, the Bobcats thrive with the rush. Running back Beau Blankenship went for 1500 yards on the season and scored 11 touchdowns, while second option Ryan Boykin added four scores an over six yards per carry.
Solich won’t deviate from the game plan too much — after all, this is a team that rushed the ball nearly 200 times more than it passed in the regular season — but ULM is a defense susceptible to big plays via the pass.
Going to the air is high risk, high reward on the Warhawks. ULM ranked No. 23 in the FBS with 15 total interceptions, including four by Isaiah Newsome and three from DaCorris Ford. But the Warhawks have also surrendered 3258 yards passing to rank No. 104 in the nation. ULM’s pursuit at the line, including the blitzes of R.J. Young and Ray Stovall, will set the tone for the Warhawk defense.