4:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Miami (FL) -6, Over/Under: 49.5
With Christmas in the rearview mirror, the Bowl Season marches on as the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs enjoy what is a virtual home game against the Miami Hurricanes in the Walk On’s Independence Bowl from Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana. Though it may seem like just another Bowl, this particular postseason affair means quite a bit to Louisiana Tech (9-3, 6-2 in CUSA), who with a win today would secure their first 10-Win Campaign since ascending to FBS level back in 1975. Of course, they’ve come close to accomplishing that feat on many occasions, winning nine games nine times, including four during the reign of Skip Holtz, who really repaired his reputation after things fell apart for him at South Florida. The Head Coach has guided the Bulldogs 55-36 record (.604) in his seven years with the program, though the most impressive thing on his CV is his sterling record in Bowls; Holtz is 7-3 in the postseason, winning five consecutive Bowls with Louisiana Tech. Indeed, few have proven better at getting their charges prepared to play in what can oftentimes be very unpredictable affairs, with their last endeavor being a convincing 31-14 victory over Hawai’i in the Hawai’i Bowl. Enjoying a trip to Honolulu in December is one thing, but seeing off the home side is icing on the cake, which is precisely what the Conference USA outfit did last December; the visiting side overcame a bit of a slow start in which they trailed 3-7 at Halftime, only to put their proverbial foot on the gas in the Third Quarter, scoring Twenty-One Unanswered Points en route to the victory. In the end, the Bulldogs dominated the affair, totaling 453 Yards of Offense while relegating the Rainbows to a miserable 226, in a very sloppy game that featured Three Turnovers from each team and a combined Twenty-One Penalties for 239 Yards Lost. Offensively, this is definitely one of the more potent attacks in the country coming from a Non-Power 5 Conference, averaging 34.0 Points per Game (29th Overall) on 445.2 Total Yards, including 277.3 Yards via the Pass and another 167.9 Yards courtesy of the Run. It’s a very experienced group led by senior Quarterback, J’Mar Smith (65.8%, 2814 YDS, 8.3 Y/A, 17 TD, 4 INT), who despite missing two of the final three games of the term due to injury, managed to put together his most efficient season in Ruston, Louisiana. Just to give you an idea as to how effective this unit is with their Senior Signal-Caller pulling the trigger, Louisiana Tech averaged a prolific 38.4 Points on 481.1 Total Yards in comparison to a meager 12.0 Points on 265.5 Total Yards without him. Furthermore, they’re 9-1 with him in 2019 and 0-2 without him. Indeed, it appears that this kid’s presence is in fact decisive. There’s no doubt that his teammates will be happy to have him back in the saddle, for this is unit that is not short on dangerous outlets for their Quarterback; Junior Tailback, Justin Henderson (166 CAR, 967 YDS, 5.8 Y/C, 15 TD), is explosive whenever he touches the football, compiling a CUSA-leading Sixteen Touchdowns from Scrimmage, while three different players have logged over 500 Receiving Yards and a score, including Malik Stanley (37 REC, 574 YDS, 15.5 Y/R, 3 TD), Adrian Hardy (41 REC, 525 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 1 TD), and Griffin Hebert (28 REC, 511 YDS, 18.3 Y/R, 6 TD). Henderson and Hebert were instrumental in their side’s 41-27 victory over Texas-San Antonio in the Regular Season Finale, with the former amassing 144 Yards from Scrimmage on Twenty-Four Touches, and the latter hauling in Three Receptions for Ninety-Two Yards and a pair of Touchdowns. After two dire showings without the services of Smith, the veteran Quarterback returned in style, putting on a show in what would be his last game at Joe Aillet Stadium, completing 25-of-35 Passes for 331 Yards, with Four Touchdowns, one of which came on the ground. Defensively, the Bulldogs haven’t been dominant by any means, but they’ve more often than not proven capable of doing just enough to get the job done. They’ve totaled Twenty-Two Takeaways this season, including Fifteen Interceptions, eleven of which came from three players alone. Veteran Defensive Backs, L’Jarius Sneed (72 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 3 INT, 4 PD, 1 TD), Amik Robertson (60 TKL, 8.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 5 INT, 16 PD, 2 TD), and Michael Sam (42 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 3 INT, 5 PD) comprise one of the most underrated Secondaries in the country, with triumvirate accounting for 12.5 Tackles for a Sack, a Forced Fumble and a Recovery, Eleven Interceptions, Twenty-Five Defended Pass, and Three Defensive Touchdowns. Of them, it’s been the Junior, Robertson, that has been the most impressive, posting an absurd Eight Tackles for Loss, along with a team-best Five Interceptions and Sixteen Pass Deflections, the most in the nation.
Meanwhile, tonight’s Independence Bowl will be the deciding factor between a winning or losing season for Miami (6-6, 4-4 in ACC), who has endured a rather mediocre beginning to the Manny Diaz Era. Of course, Diaz was never supposed to be the man in charge to begin with, deciding to take the suddenly vacant position following the shocking retirement of Mark Richt. Diaz, who had spent the previous three years as the school’s Defensive Coordinator, a period of time in which he popularized the program’s glamorous Turnover Chain, had accepted the offer from Temple to become their Head Coach shortly before Richt’s departure, causing the Miami Native to make a complete about face, and return to Coral Gables. While leading the Hurricanes is a much more prestigious job than the opportunity left behind at Temple, it’s unquestionably a more difficult one, particularly of late; Richt, a venerable Head Coach and Alma Mata, is the only man since they joined the Atlantic Coast Conference back in 2004 to win ten games in a season. Furthermore, it’s long been a culture issue for a program that loves to remind everyone of their past glories, including Five National Championships, but continues to lag behind their competition in terms of facilities and resources, not to mention results on the gridiron. Case in point; since winning their last National Championship in 2001, they’ve seen each of their direct rivals within the sunshine state, Florida and Florida State, combine to win Three National Titles. With that said, there’s reason to believe that Diaz could be the right guy to in fact right the ship, given his lengthy CV as a Defensive Mastermind, his youth (45-Years Old), and his ability to recruit the fertile grounds of the “State of Miami”. What he’s going to need though is time and patience from a school that has rarely afforded those in his position such a luxury; the ‘Canes have hired five different Head Coaches since relieving Larry Coker of his duties back in 2006, with only Al Golden lasting past his fourth season at the helm. So how has Year One of the Diaz administration played out, you ask? Well, it very may well hinge on the outcome of today’s game. A loss would bring them only their third losing campaign since 1998, which may appear to be a likelihood given the school’s recent history in Bowls. Needless to say, the Hurricanes have developed a reputation for not getting up for these affairs, losing a surprising eight of their last nine postseason outings, including last year’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl, 35-3 against Wisconsin. On that day, they committed a dismal Five Turnovers as the Badgers outgained them 406-169, putting an end to a disappointing 7-6 term. Coming into this one, they’re without any semblance of momentum, losing their final two games of the Regular Season on the road at Florida International (24-30) and Coastal Division Champion, Duke (17-27), in which the Offense was once again lethargic, uninspired, and mistake-prone (Four Turnovers). And this is where Diaz is going to have to earn his money: towards the end of the Richt Era, the Hurricanes had developed the identity of a team that fed off it’s Defense’s ability to generate Takeaways, oftentimes to a fault, with a listless Offense that struggled to sustain drives. That was the case once more in 2019, with the Offense averaging just 27.8 Points per Game (73rd Overall) on 379.7 Total Yards, thanks in large part to unsettlement at Quarterback, and injuries that swept through the unit, shelving leading rusher, Deejay Dallas (116 CAR, 694 YDS, 6.0 Y/C, 8 TD), for the season after ten games. Diaz went back and forth between Redshirt Freshman, Jarren Williams (62.7%, 2,093 YDS, 8.2 Y/A, 19 TD, 6 INT), and Sophomore, N’Kosi Perry (55.6%, 993 YDS, 6.9 Y/A, 8 TD, 2 INT), though neither managed to distinguish themselves as the Starting Quarterback, though the former appears to have earned the Coaching Staff’s favor, despite struggling mightily in those last two outings. Fortunately, the Defense has continued to be stellar, even if they haven’t created the momentum-changing plays that we’ve come to expect over the years. Miami allowed 20.8 Points per Game (25th Overall) on 307.8 Total Yards this season, though could muster just Nineteen Takeaways after posting ridiculous totals of Thirty-One and Twenty-Five in 2017 and 2018 respectively. This group figures to only get better given their youth, led by Redshirt Freshman Defensive End, Gregory Rousseau (49 TKL, 18.0 TFL, 14.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 PD), who despite not being a Starter coming into the season, was second only to All-American and Heisman Finalist, Chase Young, tallying Fourteen Sacks and an ACC-leading Eighteen Tackles for Loss. How this team comes out and competes in front of a decisively pro-Louisiana Tech crowd in what is otherwise a meaningless affair will go a long way towards telling us where Miami is headed under Diaz, and perhaps even how long we can expect his stay to last in Coral Gables.