Louisiana-Monroe vs. Ohio: Independence Bowl Breakdown
Louisiana-Monroe (8-4) vs. Ohio (8-4)
Dec. 28, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Though the Sun Belt and MAC heavies fell short of their briefly held BCS-busting ambitions, the Warhawks and Bobcats both enjoyed periods as America's sweethearts this season. Louisiana-Monroe opened its season with a shocking upset of then-No. 8 Arkansas on Sept. 8, and even though the Razorbacks proved to be a mediocre squad in 2012, Warhawks quarterback Kolton Browning's upset-sealing touchdown run still established ULM as a nationally relevant program. The Warhawks lost their next two games against Auburn and Baylor by a combined eight points, falling out of the BCS picture but earning respect nationwide. Ohio, meanwhile, opened the season with a road upset over scandal-ridden Penn State on Sept. 1, ultimately rising to No. 23 in the AP Poll and looking like a legitimate BCS contender before imploding down the stretch and losing four of its final five games.
• Keep an eye on: Browning, who threw for 2,830 yards and 27 touchdowns and rushed for a team-best 441 yards and an additional seven scores despite missing most of two games with an injured foot. How valuable is Browning? After barely losing to Auburn and Baylor in September, ULM suffered two more losses the rest of the way: against Louisiana-Lafayette when Browning got hurt, and the next week against Arkansas State with Browning still out injured. Browning's foot isn't bothering him anymore, though: The junior completed 77.8 percent of his passes in the final two games of the season while throwing for four touchdowns and rushing for two more. Browning established a particularly potent connection this season with receiver Brent Leonard, who caught 97 passes for 1,042 yards and 10 touchdowns and ranked sixth nationally with 8.08 receptions per game. That's bad news for an Ohio defense that allowed 80 points and 956 yards in its final two games and was outscored 106-47 during its three-game losing streak to end the regular season.
• Did you know: Ohio's Beau Blankenship was a top-10 rusher this season? The second-team All-MAC selectee ranked ninth nationally with 1,500 rushing yards (on the dot) and 10th nationally with 125.0 rushing yards per game. In addition to those team-record 1,500 yards, Blankenship added 177 receiving yards on the year to rank 15th nationally with 139.8 total yards per game. He also added 11 rushing scores. And while much of the team struggled down the stretch, Blankenship excelled, totaling 306 rushing yards and three touchdowns in his final two games.
• Final analysis: This preseason, Ohio looked like a team capable of staging an undefeated run and crashing the BCS. That didn't happen, partially because the defense struggled late, but largely because the offense (aside from Blankenship) evaporated down the stretch. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton was supposed to deliver a stud campaign, but he managed just 16 passing touchdowns this season, including one total passing score during the team's three-game losing streak to close the year. Ohio has earned four consecutive bowl berths, which is a remarkable achievement for Frank Solich's team, but the Bobcats simply lost their potency late in the season. After averaging 35.6 points during its first nine games, Ohio averaged just 15.7 during its skid. That's not going to get it done against Browning and Louisiana-Monroe's aerial assault.
• The pick: Louisiana-Monroe 34, Ohio 21