The Houston Cougars (7-5, 5-3 AAC) and Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (6-6, 4-4 Sun Belt) square off in the 2022 Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl on Friday in Shreveport, LA. This postseason meeting marks the first time these schools have settled things on the gridiron since the Ragin’ Cajuns upset the Cougars 31-28 in the 2006 season.
Under the direction of Dana Holgorsen, the Cougars hope to string together back-to-back bowl wins in their final game as a member of the American Athletic Conference. Meanwhile, the Ragin’ Cajuns aim for a fourth consecutive bowl win and a +.500 finish to the season under first-year head coach Michael Desormeaux.
Here are several storylines involving both teams heading into Friday’s Independence Bowl matchup:
Tune to Dell: The Final Act
The Houston Cougars’ offense in the Dana Holgorsen era can simply be defined by one quarterback and his trustworthy star receiver.
Clayton Tune has bled Cougar red and white through it all. He was a true freshman starting quarterback when Houston lost 70-14 to Army in the 2018 Armed Forces Bowl. He took over the primary starting reins for the tumultuous 4-8 campaign the following season. He remained in that No. 1 QB role when Houston rattled off 11 consecutive wins in 2021, qualified for the AAC Championship Game, and defeated Auburn in a thrilling Birmingham Bowl finish. And he followed it up with First Team All-AAC honors in a 2022 season which saw him pass for 527 yards and seven touchdowns in a single game.
Nathaniel “Tank” Dell landed at Houston after launching his college career in the FCS ranks at Alabama A&M. Dell was an instant star on campus, leading the team in receptions and yardage during the 2020 pandemic-riddled season. He took his numbers to the next level in 2021, earning a First Team All-AAC nod with 90 receptions, 1,329 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns. The electrifying playmaker remained at Houston for one final season, and he enters Friday’s bowl game touting season-long statistics of 103 receptions, 1,354 receiving yards, and 15 touchdowns — ranking among the FBS top three in all statistical categories.
Fittingly, Tune is tied for the national lead in passing touchdowns while Dell is tied for the national lead in receiving touchdowns. These two have been on page for three years, and their on-field connection looks telepathic at times. As Tune watches his eligibility exhaust after Friday’s game and Dell moves on to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft, the Independence Bowl will signify the final time watching this lethal connection.
Tune and Dell have linked up for a touchdown in nine consecutive games and the two have produced 160+ yards together in three of the last four outings. If the current trends continue, Shreveport, LA could be home to a fireworks show for their sendoff performances.
Turnover margin disparity
Louisiana is playing this game considerably more shorthanded than Houston, down its starting quarterback, No. 2 running back, top wide receiver, and top pass rusher. But there is a great equalizer between the teams that could come into play — turnover margin.
Louisiana is currently tied for the 23rd best turnover margin in the FBS at a +7 on the year. The Ragin’ Cajuns produced 23 takeaways by corralling 15 interceptions and pouncing on eight fumbles. Conversely, Houston is 12th-to-worst nationally in terms of turnover deficit. Sitting at a -8, the Cougars are noticeably more prone to coughing the ball up than prying it away from opponents. Only on 11 occasions has Houston forced a turnover this year, generating just seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
This matchup pits the 12th scoring offense (37.2 points per game) against the 75th scoring offense (27.0 points per game). Although luck is often involved in the turnover battle, the season-long trends in this department could factor in as the equalizer between the Cougars and Ragin’ Cajuns in Shreveport.
Which Louisiana receiver emerges?
Louisiana’s offense features an unquestionable No. 1 option at wide receiver. Michael Jefferson is the Ragin’ Cajuns’ do-everything guy, and his impact is evident in the stat sheet. Jefferson compiled 2022 numbers of 51 receptions, 810 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns — providing maximal impact for Louisiana’s aerial attack.
However, the Ragin’ Cajuns are without Jefferson for Friday’s matchup, as the star receiver opted out of the remainder of the season to focus on his NFL Draft endeavors. That leaves a hodgepodge of steady contributors without a clear-cut No. 1 option in Louisiana’s receiving room. The next-leading Cajun in the receptions category has 22 on the year, while the closest member of the roster to Jefferson in terms of yards has 237.
John Stephens Jr., Peter LeBlanc, Dontae Fleming, Jacob Bernard, and Errol Rogers are all viable candidates to emerge as the top receiving threat in this game. Stephens has been known to inflict damage on deep balls, while LeBlanc is a reliable option closer to the line of scrimmage. A Jefferson-esque star is needed to bolster Louisiana’s passing attack Friday, and the Ragin’ Cajuns can certainly find one as Houston’s pass defense ranks 126th in yards surrendered, allowing second most passing touchdowns in the FBS.
Which version of Houston defense shows up?
The duality of the Houston defense is remarkable.
Entering the year, defense was expected to be the calling card of this Cougars team as they ranked top 20 in virtually every major statistical category last season. Houston’s defense was the primary reason it attained a 12-2 record in 2021, and it was that unit which preserved a 17-13 signature Birmingham Bowl win over Auburn 12 months ago.
This year, the defense hasn’t seen the same level of consistency. The Cougars rank 117th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 33.5 points per contest. There were egregious outings such as the SMU game, where Houston surrendered 11 touchdowns on 12 full SMU possessions, falling by an unfathomable score of 77-63. But then there were performances like the one witnessed exactly two weeks later in Greenville, NC. Houston completely outclassed a sharp East Carolina offense, holding it completely out of the end zone in a 42-3 victory. The Cougars’ honed their claws in coverage on third downs, accumulated more pressure in the backfield, and looked truer on their tackling ability.
However, some of those improvements were quickly dismissed one week later in the regular season finale against Tulsa. The Cougars’ defense needs to prove the East Carolina game was not an aberration and finish 2022 with a similar showing. Stepping up to the occasion like that may be the difference between a spectacular sendoff or disappointing ending.
Return specialist threats
Special teams coaches, beware. Every time a kickoff specialist or punter boots the ball, there is a chance the returner winds up in the end zone.
The Independence Bowl features the most impressive return specialist lineup of any bowl game this year. Louisiana trots out Chris Smith as kick returner and Eric Garror as punt returner — and both specialists once scored in the same game. Smith’s special teams résumé consists of two career kickoff return touchdowns, while Garror has returned three punts to the house in his time as a Ragin’ Cajun, including two this season.
Houston has two early NFL Draft declarers on the roster, and both make a massive impact in the special teams game. Jayce Rogers sports a 30.5 kickoff return average on the season, and he struck gold in a Friday night game against Memphis this season when returning a kick 100 yards to the end zone. Dell averages 17.0 per punt return and he enters the Independence Bowl fresh off the game which featured his first career punt return touchdown.
The four aforementioned return specialists combine for seven career touchdowns, including five this season. Thus, this game could feature a bevy of squid kicks, pooch kicks, and strategic out-of-bounds punts to minimize the impact of these playmakers.
The 2022 Independence Bowl kicks off at 3 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. CT in Shreveport, LA and will be televised on ESPN.