SHREVEPORT — It has taken Louisiana-Monroe 19 years to reach the postseason at college football’s highest level.
Now third-year coach Todd Berry wants the Warhawks take advantage of the opportunity.
“This isn’t the exclamation point at the end of the sentence,” Berry said of the program’s remarkable turnaround. “This is the capital letter at the beginning.”
Louisiana-Monroe (8-4) will face Ohio (8-4) in the Independence Bowl on Friday in front of what’s expected to be a partisan crowd for the Warhawks. The game will be played about 100 miles from Monroe, so the Bobcats can’t expect much of a neutral environment.
That’s just fine with Ohio’s eighth-year coach Frank Solich.
“We want people in the stands,” Solich said. “We want to play in front of a large crowd. We liken this just a little bit to the first game of the year against Penn State where we knew we’d be outnumbered, yet we relish the opportunity in front of a national audience to display our football team.”
Ohio beat Penn State in that season-opening game. Louisiana-Monroe started its season by winning at Arkansas. The Bobcats and Warhawks were September upstart stars, and now they’ll get a chance to face each other with plenty on the line. Ohio is trying to win nine games for the third time in four seasons, while Louisiana-Monroe is trying to end a dream season that began with the stunning overtime victory in Little Rock, Ark.
The Warhawks also played tight games against Auburn and Baylor before ultimately falling short.
“It comes down to showing a lot of heart, a lot of resilience and a lot of belief,” Berry said. “I think this group — they believe they’re going to find a way to win. And belief is a very powerful thing.”
But belief isn’t all of it — the Warhawks also have some very good players.
Kolton Browning has thrown for 2,830 yards, 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. The 6-foot-1, 194-pound junior also leads the team with 441 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Browning’s favorite target is senior receiver Brent Leonard, a former walk-on who has caught 97 passes for 1,042 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
The duo gets one more chance to showcase Louisiana-Monroe’s improvement.
“It’s going to be a great environment,” Leonard said. “We’ve been trying to get the fans in the stands. I don’t know if it’s going to be sold out. I think we’ve sold out of our allotment of tickets. We’ve kind of done our job. I know the Warhawk fans are going to come here and they’re going to be cheering loud, so we’re going to be ready.”
Ohio is playing in a bowl game for a fourth straight season, but isn’t riding the same emotional high as Louisiana-Monroe. The Bobcats won their first seven games of the season, even briefly nudging into the Associated Press Top 25 before losing four of their final five regular-season games.
Solich said a compact schedule during that stretch — the Bobcats had to play four games in 19 days at one point because of television demands — contributed to losing some steam at the end.
But a month off has allowed Ohio some time to replenish its strength, and there’s little doubt there is talent on the roster.
Beau Blankenship has rushed for a school-record 1,500 yards this season, breaking the 100-yard barrier in nine games this season. The 5-foot-9, 202-pound junior rushed for a season-high 269 yards against Massachusetts.
Quarterback Tyler Tettleton has thrown for 2,513 yards, 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He said Louisiana-Monroe’s high-pressure defense is comparable to some of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference.
“Probably more like a Kent State or Bowling Green,” Tettleton said. “They’re really aggressive and have a good front seven. They like to load the box to stop the run, so we’re going to have to make plays downfield. We feel like we’ve got the players to do it.”
Louisiana-Monroe’s gambling ways are part of Berry’s philosophy. The offense takes plenty of risks as well, and has earned a reputation for going for fourth-down conversions even when the odds seem long.
Now the Warhawks are trying for their first postseason victory since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1994.
“Our slogan is we didn’t come here to play, we came here to win,” Berry said. “We’re serious about going out there to try and win and we know we’ve got a great challenge for us.”