SHREVEPORT, La. - Weldon Brown has been a regular at Independence Stadium for most of his life.
He played here twice in Peewee football and two more times in high school, but all of those games — and every one he played in college — paled compared to the performance the senior defensive back put in Sunday night in Louisiana Tech’s 17-10 win over Northern Illinois in the Independence Bowl.
“It really was my greatest game,” Brown said. “To come out here in my hometown, it’s a privilege and an honor and I’m just thankful to have my career end here.”
Every time the Bulldogs (8-5) needed a big play as the Huskies (6-7) threatened, Brown was there. He stopped one scoring threat with a shoestring tackle to set up fourth down, then batted down the ensuing pass. He recovered a fumbled punt to set up a field goal attempt and ended one of two late drives with the game on the line with an interception.
He finished with 14 tackles and was named defensive most valuable player.
“What a great way to end a career,” Dooley said. “In your hometown, a senior and you end up being defensive MVP. If we’d gotten that field goal, it would’ve made him look better.”
No matter, Brown and the Bulldogs come out looking just fine after an unexpected invitation to the bowl, which is 70 miles down Interstate 20 from Ruston. Neither the Southeastern Conference nor the Big 12 could produce participants and Louisiana Tech took full advantage.
Along with Brown’s big plays on defense, Phillip Livas returned a kickoff 97 yards, Daniel Porter rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown and Louisiana Tech scored its first postseason win since the 1977 Independence Bowl with its seventh come-from-behind win of the season. The Bulldogs hadn’t won eight games since 1999.
The victory over Northern Illinois marks a quick turnaround under Dooley, former protege of Nick Saban and son of iconic Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley. As his father did, Dooley won his first bowl. And just like ol’ dad, he used special teams, defense and the running game to prevail.
“They went out as champions,” Dooley said. “That was our goal, to go out as champions.”
Two seasons ago such a scenario would be hard to imagine. The Bulldogs won three games, then five last year. But Louisiana Tech kicked off 2008 with an upset of Mississippi State and earned its first postseason trip since the 2001 Humanitarian Bowl by winning four of their last five regular-season games.
Much of the scoring and all the big plays came in the first half. Northern Illinois dominated the first quarter with 125 total yards to 23 for Tech.
The Huskies scored on Chandler Harnish’s 8-yard pass to fullback Kyle Skarb in the left flat, his fifth straight completion for 53 yards on the drive.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth pretty good early,” Dooley said.
But poor special teams helped erase the Huskies’ advantage. First, Livas broke a tackle at midfield and shook Chase Carter at the 30 with a dynamic stop-and-go move on the ensuing kickoff. It was the eighth non-offensive touchdown of the season for the Bulldogs, moving them into a tie for the most in major college football. It also was the second longest kickoff return for a touchdown in the Independence Bowl and the first since Mississippi’s Deuce McAllister did it in 1998.
“It’s been our formula all year — a big play on special teams to get us going,” Dooley said.
Livas celebrated the score by throwing the ball into the end zone — but wasn’t flagged for the infraction.
“I don’t usually show a lot of emotion or nothing,” said Livas, who also returned two punts for scores this season. “So I figured if I showed a lot of emotion, it would get everyone going.”
After three quick offensive plays, Northern Illinois tried to avoid Livas on the punt, but Mike Salernos shanked a rugby-style kick for 15 yards. Louisiana Tech took over at the Huskies’ 42 and got help with a 15-yard facemask penalty on Larry English and a 24-yard pass to Porter.
Porter then carried it in from 11 yards out off left tackle for a 14-7 lead with 1:19 gone in the second quarter.
Northern Illinois had a chance to tie the game just before halftime, but Brown hit Harnish as he threw toward the end zone, leading to Deon Young’s interception.
Brown’s recovery of Greg Turner’s fumble on a punt return ended another chance for the Huskies, though Mike Krause blocked the Bulldogs’ ensuing field goal try.
The teams traded field goals on their first possessions of the second half, then played to a stalemate the rest of the way.
Louisiana Tech managed only 236 total yards and Porter had his string of 100-yard rushing games snapped at four. Northern Illinois had 339 yards, with Harnish going 20-for-40 for 186 yards.
Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill refused to take the game as a loss. His players benefited, no matter what the final score was.
“Our future’s bright and I really feel like the Independence Bowl will help us get there,” he said.
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