Louisiana-Monroe proved it could play with some of the big boys, and it didn’t stop there on the way to a historic year.
Ohio also built on the momentum from its memorable start to reach the postseason for a fourth consecutive time.
The Warhawks and the Bobcats, teams that pulled off big upsets in 2012, meet for the first time Friday in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.
Louisiana-Monroe (8-4) opened the season with a stunning 34-31 win over then-No. 8 Arkansas on Sept. 8. Though the Razorbacks proved to be vastly overrated, the Warhawks went on to show they could indeed compete with bigger programs, losing to Auburn and Baylor by a total of eight points in the following weeks.
Louisiana-Monroe then went 7-2 to close the regular season and earn its first bowl appearance since joining what would become the FBS in 1994.
“We are very excited that the hard work of the team and the staff have been noticed,” coach Todd Berry said. “To have a historic season culminate in a bowl such as the Independence Bowl is extra special.”
Despite missing almost two full games due to injury, Kolton Browning has thrown for 2,830 yards and 27 touchdowns with seven interceptions. The junior has also rushed for a team-best 441 yards and seven TDs.
Junior Brent Leonard has emerged as Browning’s top target, ranking seventh in the nation with 97 catches for 1,042 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Louisiana-Monroe, averaging 35.5 points, will try to take advantage of an Ohio defense that allowed 80 points and 965 yards in the last two games.
“They’ve played some high-caliber opponents,” Bobcats coach Frank Solich said of the Warhawks. “It shows you the capability of Louisiana-Monroe and what they’re all about. It’ll be a tremendous challenge, but certainly one we look forward to.”
Like Louisiana-Monroe, Ohio (8-4) opened the season with a road upset, knocking off Penn State 24-14 on Sept. 1. The Bobcats won their first seven games for their best start since 1968 and became bowl eligible for the fifth time in six years.
Ohio defeated Utah State 24-23 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last season.
“It’s exciting for all of us,” Solich said. “I think it’s great for our program to be able to go to four (bowl) games in a row.”
Ohio climbed as high as 23rd in the Top 25, but it was outscored 106-47 during a three-game losing streak to end the regular season.
The Bobcats will try to close 2012 with a victory behind second-team all-MAC pick Beau Blankenship, 10th in the nation with 125.0 rushing yards per game.
The junior has run for a school-record 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also has 177 receiving yards and is 15th nationally with 139.8 total yards per game.
Junior Tyler Tettleton directs the passing attack, having completed 62.0 percent of his attempts for 2,513 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Tettleton will have to continue to make smart decisions against Louisiana-Monroe, which has 15 interceptions on the year.
Ohio has scored 15.7 points per game during its skid after averaging 35.6 in its first nine contests.
“We’re eager and hungry to get back out there and play a good opponent in Louisiana-Monroe,” Tettleton said. “It’s exciting to be in a bowl game and have this opportunity.”