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Storybook sendoff for Tune and Dell lifts Houston past Louisiana in Independence Bowl, 23-16

Houston’s iconic duo goes out on top thanks to go-ahead touchdown pass in the final minute.

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-UL Lafayette at Houston Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The college careers of quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell were nothing short of spectacular. The duo first linked up during the 2020 season. In their second year together, they guided the Cougars to a 12-win season, a conference championship appearance, and a bowl win in 2021. This year, Tune finished the regular season atop the passing touchdowns leaderboard list while Dell ranked No. 1 in the receiving touchdowns department.

Entering Saturday, the First Team All-AAC quarterback and wide receiver connected north of 200 times for nearly 3,000 yards. In three years shared together at Houston, Tune delivered 28 touchdown strikes to his favorite target. But since the 2022 Independence Bowl marked the final collegiate game for Tune and Dell alike, the final sentence on all of their accomplishments would be written Friday night in Shreveport, LA.

That final sentence transpired in a tie ballgame, 16-16, with 27 seconds of life on the clock at Independence Stadium. Tune fielded the snap out of shotgun while Dell darted toward the sideline on an out route. The camaraderie between the two was evident as the quarterback delivered the ball before the receiver changed directions in his route. Dell patiently waited to make one juke on the defender and he dove across the goal line.

“Before the play happened, I gave Tune that look,” Dell said. “He knows that look and he looked at me, and I’m like, ‘I want the ball right here.’ He just set me in motion and gave me the ball and that happened.”

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-UL Lafayette at Houston
Clayton Tune won Offensive MVP honors of the Independence Bowl by firing for 224 yards and three touchdowns. This is his second bowl MVP trophy.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty seconds remained after Tune and Dell made one final connection to elevate Houston to a 23-16 lead over Louisiana — its first lead of the Independence Bowl. The Cougars held on in Shreveport, sending two of their most accomplished players into the sunset in triumphant fashion.

“It’s exactly the way I would have scripted it,” Tune said. “I saw the coverage. I saw Tank out there. We had a play called to him, but I saw leverage for a better route. He saw it too. I had all the faith in the world that he was gonna win on the route and catch the ball and get in the end zone. It was an easy decision for me. I just put it out there and let him do the rest. I couldn’t be happier with the way it happened.”

Tune’s final pass to Dell was scripted by none other than Tune himself. The original play call was a corner route in the end zone to Dell, but Tune called an audible after reading the coverage and noticing his star receiver would gain more leverage on an out route. That adjustment produced the 30th career touchdown pass between the veteran quarterback and receiver, and it gave the nation’s touchdown receptions leader his 17th of the season.

“I told you a couple days ago that (Tune) was gonna call a lot of the plays based on his familiarity with what they were gonna do defensively,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He changed that play. That’s what makes this relationship so special is he saw leverage, they just kind of got these goofy looks and signals and stuff like that that makes it work.”

The events leading up to the go-ahead touchdown were anything but ordinary. The Cougars launched the drive with roughly three minutes remaining after Louisiana elected to punt from the Houston 34-yard line — a decision due to the unfavorable kicking conditions in the freezing weather. Tune immediately maneuvered the Cougars downfield on a 33-yard scramble, but that progress was quickly erased by back-to-back holding penalties to set up 1st and 30. Despite the long-distance situation, Tune maintained his poise and found KeSean Carter on a 41-yard gain to move the sticks. That significant pickup catapulted the Cougars into Louisiana territory and ultimately set up the deciding touchdown.

“I was wanting to get as many pass yards as I could, so I was like, ‘Here, on this play hold so we can go back and I can throw it further,’” Tune joked. “I don’t know — that’s the thing. When you’re faced with adversity, you have to overcome it. That’s the whole mindset and the whole mentality.”

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-UL Lafayette at Houston
KeSean Carter caught four passes in the Independence Bowl, but three covered at least 30 yards. Carter’s 41-yard reception on 1st and 30 put the Cougars in position for the game-winning score.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Through countless injuries and regular heartbreaking finishes, adversity was a prevailing theme all season long for Houston. But in the first half in Shreveport, the Cougars created their own adversity by falling into a 13-0 hole to start the game. After trading a touchdown for a field goal in the half’s final minutes, Houston trotted into the locker room trailing 16-7 at halftime. But Holgorsen’s resilient squad stormed out of the third quarter clicking on both sides of the ball to completely flip the narrative of the Independence Bowl.

“To be down at halftime again and to come back on a 2-minute drive and score, it’s what the whole season’s been about,” Holgorsen said. “I just commend our guys for having a never-quit attitude and being resilient and creating a pretty special memory, which is winning a bowl game like this.”

The Cougars entered the contest tallying just 11 takeaways on the season, while the Ragin’ Cajuns displayed more expertise in this category by forcing 23 turnovers. But those statistics were quickly disposed of Friday as Houston swept Louisiana in the turnover department 3-0.

Louisiana’s first fumble in the third quarter was jarred out and recovered by Sedrick Williams. However, Houston was unable to capitalize. The Ragin’ Cajuns second fumble was much more monumental as they coughed up the ball four yards away from the goal line in a 16-16 tie game. Louisiana made three trips inside the Houston 10-yard line, yet produced one touchdown and one chip shot field goal in those opportunities thanks to a relentless red zone defense.

“Those two turnovers took two possessions where they didn’t have the opportunities to be able to score,” Holgorsen said. “The one drive where we didn’t look good in the second half, we created the turnover in the red zone. When we win games, we play good defense in the red zone and we did a good job of that tonight.”

Cornerback Jayce Rogers, who declared for the NFL Draft prior to the game, also received a perfect sendoff by intercepting Louisiana quarterback Zeon Chriss’ final pass with three seconds left — providing Houston its third and final takeaway of the night. Rogers’ interception ensured the Cougar defense pitched a second half shutout on the Ragin’ Cajuns.

“At halftime, we just felt we were being outplayed as a whole,” said cornerback Art Green, who locked up Defensive MVP honors. “We just had to come together and just finish the game and that’s something we’ve been preaching to each other all year. It was nice to put one whole good half together and just finish the game.”

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-UL Lafayette at Houston
The Houston Cougars celebrate with the Independence Bowl trophy after defeating Louisiana, 23-16.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

But before defensive stops and turnovers served as a difference maker in the second half, the Cougars needed assistance from elsewhere in the first 30 minutes of action. That help came in the form of wide receiver KeSean Carter, who amassed a team-high 112 receiving yards in the victory. Similar to his 1st and 30 conversion in crunch time, Carter caught a 30-yard pass on 1st and 20 in the late second quarter, and two plays later, the senior followed it up with a 33-yard touchdown reception to put Houston on the board.

“We were struggling a little bit so we needed a big play and something good for us to happen to get us going, get us in motion, and KeSean made a really good play that helped us and set it in motion,” Tune said.

Houston finishes its 2022 campaign with an 8-5 record, while Louisiana claims its first losing record since 2017 by falling to 6-7. The Cougars were provided lofty expectations in preseason after attaining 12 wins in 2022 with a horde of talent returning. Although the team didn’t replicate the lofty feats from the prior year, Holgorsen was proud of the way they handled business in the Independence Bowl setting — ensuring Tune, Dell, and others would finish 2022 on the correct footing.

“When you’re coming off a 12-win season with Tune and Tank coming back, expectations are gonna get shot through the roof,” Holgorsen said. “College football is competitive and hard and there’s a lot of good teams. For us to get our eighth win, for these seniors to get their 20th win the past two years, I’m very proud of that.”