It’s no surprise that Louisiana Tech turned to its defense and special teams against Northern Illinois Sunday night at the 33rd Independence Bowl at Independence Stadium.
Those units were instrumental all season in leading head coach Derek Dooley and Co. to its first post-season appearance since 2001 and only its third since the program joined the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1989.
On Sunday night in Shreveport, once again, they came through leading Tech to a 17-10 win over the Huskies.
“Let me start by giving Northern Illinois a tremendous about of credit,” Dooley said. “Coach (Jerry) Kill and his staff do a great job. They are an outstanding football team; every bit as good as advertised.”
Phillip Livas, the offensive MVP of the game, got the game started for Tech with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter and then the Bulldogs defense stiffened the rest of the way.
“The return was a sideline return,” Livas said. “Once I got past the defender, I just knew I had to make a play. We needed to get the momentum back.”
After allowing a NIU touchdown on only its second possession, the Tech defensive unit limited the Huskies to three points over the final three quarters of play.
“It was a phenomenal defensive effort by both teams,” Dooley said. “We got better as the game went on, and we knew it was going to down to the last drive. We talked to our players all week about playing to the last play of the game.”
Senior defensive back Weldon Brown, playing before a home crowd, earned defensive MVP honors after recording a career-high 14 tackles, one fumble recovery, one interception and a key pass breakup on a NIU fourth down play early in the game.
“This was great,” Brown said. “It’s a privilege to earn the defensive MVP honors, and I’m grateful to end my career (in Shreveport).”
Northern Illinois jumped out to an early 7-0 lead on an 8-yard pass from Chandler Harnish to fullback Kyle Skarb with 1:56 to play in the first quarter. The play culminated an 11-play drive covering 69 yards in 1:56.
The lead was short-lived as “Saturday Night” Livas took the ensuing kickoff, ran straight up the middle before veering left towards the Bulldog sideline and raced 97 yards for a touchdown.
It was Livas’ second career kickoff return for a touchdown and the sixth longest in Bulldog history. Livas, who also has two punt returns for scores this season, now has four returns for scores in his career, the second most trailing only Larry Anderson with five.
The kickoff return was the second longest in Indy Bowl history and the first since Duece McAllister returned one for Ole Miss against Texas Tech in 1998.
After a three-and-out by NIU on its next possession, the Bulldogs took a 14-7 lead on an 11-yard Daniel Porter touchdown run with 13:41 to play in the second quarter. The touchdown which came on a draw play on second and goal, capped a 5-play, 42-yard drive over 2:04.
After another 3-and-out by NIU, Tech appeared to have threatened again when senior Patrick Jackson took a handoff and raced over 50 yards inside the Huskies 10-yard line but a holding penalty negated the play.
After a failed third down attempt brought up a fourth down and seven, Tech attempted a fake punt but Quin Harris was tackled a foot short of the line to gain as NIU took over on the Tech 46-yard line.
The game remained 14-7 but the Bulldogs had a golden opportunity to take a bigger lead into the half when Weldon Brown recovered a fumbled punt return by the Huskies with only 36 seconds remaining in the half.
However, after three straight incompletions by Ross Jenkins, Brad Oestriecher had a 41-yard field goal attempt partially blocked by Jake Coffman as the Bulldogs entered the halftime locker room leading by a touchdown.
Oestriecher redeemed himself early it the third quarter as the Bulldogs marched 49 yards, on eight plays and took a 17-7 lead on a 33-yard field goal at the 11:54 mark of the third quarter.
NIU answered on its ensuing possession as the Huskies drove 66 yards on 10 plays and connected on a 20-yard field goal by Mike Salerno. The big play for NIU during the drive was a third down completion from Harnish to Marcus Perez that covered 47 yards and gave the Huskies the ball on the Tech 8-yard line.
However, little did anyone know that would be the last of the scoring for either team.
Over the last five offensive possessions of the game for NIU, the Tech defense held the Huskies to only 103 yards and NIU ventured past midfield only once — the Bulldogs defense held on a fourth-down-and-five play on its own 46 yard line with less than two minutes to play.
The Bulldogs on the other hand had a couple of opportunities to add on to their total as Patrick Jackson fumbled inside the NIU 15-yard line after a 34-yard gain on a screen pass from Ross Jenkins midway through the fourth quarter.
Tech also failed to capitalize after Brown intercepted Harnish at the Huskies 37-yard line with 6:25 to play. The Bulldogs lost five yards on their three offensive plays and were forced to punt.
The eight wins is the most by a Bulldog team since the 1999 Tech squad posted an 8-3 mark and the bowl win was the first since the 1977 Independence Bowl.
Written by Dave Guerin