A diverse triple-header gets us rolling into the weekend. ULM kicks the day off with the first bowl game in school history, Rutgers and Virginia Tech stage their first game since 2003 and Texas Tech meets Minnesota in a re-match of the epic 2006 Insight Bowl.
Independence Bowl – Ohio vs. Louisiana – Monroe (2 p.m. ET, ESPN): A MAC team makes its first trip to Shreveport since 2004, while ULM will become the first Sun Belt program to play in the 36-year old bowl game. In fact, the Independence Bowl marks the Warhawks’ first bowl appearance in 18 seasons as an FBS program. Todd Berry’s team reached the national consciousness in September with back-to-back overtime thrillers against Arkansas and Auburn; in fact, the team set a school record with four overtime affairs this season. ULM’s offense is keyed by the combination of quarterback Kolton Browning (second in the Sun Belt in total offense with 2,830 passing yards and 441 rushing yards) and Sun Belt-leading receiver Brent Leonard, who has caught 97 passes for 1,042 yards and 10 scores. Defensively, the Warhawks lead the Sun Belt in one metric: rushing defense (135.8 yards per game, 3.8 yards per carry).
Frank Solich’s squad started the season 7-0 and became a trendy dark horse to become the MAC’s first BCS buster (an honor that eventually went to Northern Illinois), but dropped four of its last five games to bowl bound squads Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green, Ball State and Kent State. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton drew the preseason headlines, but running back Beau Blankenship proved to be Ohio’s offensive engine. Blankenship posted eight 100-yard games, ran for at least 72 yards in every contest and ran for more yards than every MAC player not named Jordan Lynch. ULM may have the overtime experience, but Ohio has emerged victorious in four of its five games decided by one score or less.
Russell Athletic Bowl – Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): The Orlando-based bowl has changed sponsors from a a sporting goods retailer (Champs Sports) to manufacturer, and features a one-time Big East matchup that has occurred 15 times in history, with Virginia Tech taking the last 11 meetings. In a rare down season under Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech sputtered to a 6-6 record behind a good-but-not-great defense and an offense that never truly got off the ground. Dual-threat quarterback Logan Thomas rushed for 528 yards and nine scores and threw for 2,783 yards but balanced 17 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. The Hokies, who needed to squeak by Boston College and Virginia to qualify for the program’s 20th straight bowl. Virginia Tech’s best win came in a 37-0 triumph over Bowling Green. Needless to say, Beamer’s team needs a signature win.
Kyle Flood has stressed throughout December workouts that he wants to go 1-0 in the bowl, and to do that Rutgers will need to mentally rebound from an emotionally-draining 20-17 loss to Louisville in the regular season finale. The Scarlet Knights don’t wow anyone on offense (100th in total offense, 94th in scoring offense) and win games through a consistent defense. Rutgers ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense and have permitted just 9.9 points per game in their nine victories. Rutgers ranked second in the Big East in rushing defense (105 yards per game, 2.94 yards per carry) and lead the league with 29 turnovers forced.
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas – Minnesota vs. Texas Tech (9 p.m. ET, ESPN): Minnesota dismissed head coach Glen Mason following the Golden Gophers’ blown loss to Texas Tech in the 2006 Insight Bowl and have needed six seasons and two head coaches to recover. The Gophers sputtered into Houston, dropping six of their last eight games. With an offense that produces 21.3 points per game (the second-fewest of any bowl participant), Minnesota will attempt to slow the game down as much as possible. The Gophers’ defensive backfield will give Jerry Kill’s team a puncher’s chance, as Minnesota placed 19th nationally in pass efficiency defense with an average of six yards per attempt with 11 interceptions against 13 touchdowns.
However, those numbers were accumulated against a total of 357 passes this season. Texas Tech threw 547 passes in 12 games and, with senior quarterback Seth Doege playing his final game in red and black, figures to only up the ante. Texas Tech will be perhaps the most spirited of any bowl team playing for an interim coach, playing in front of a large alumni base in Houston with favorite son Kliff Kingsbury his program from the sidelines. The Red Raiders will do their best to put the ball in Doege’s hands, who in turn will fire it to his pair of top 20 pass catchers Darrin Moore and Eric Ward, and turn challenge Minnesota to keep up.