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Saturday, February 4, 2023

Football

Late drive heroics lifts UH over Louisiana in Independence Bowl


Clayton Tune ends his UH career as the AAC's all-time leader and touchdown passes and total touchdowns responsible four after throwing for three scores in the Cougars' Independence Bowl victory. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Clayton Tune ends his UH career as the AAC’s all-time leader and touchdown passes and total touchdowns responsible four after throwing for three scores in the Cougars’ Independence Bowl victory. | Courtesy of UH athletics

It was only fitting that Clayton Tune’s last collegiate pass was a game-winning touchdown to Nathaniel “Tank” Dell.

With the ball at the Louisiana 12-yard line with 27 seconds left on the clock, Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen trusted his veteran quarterback, who was heavily involved in UH’s play calling throughout the afternoon, to call the right play.

Instead of calling a couple of run plays to set up a game-winning chip shot field goal, Tune knew exactly where he wanted the ball to go.

“I saw the coverage, I saw Tank out there,” Tune said. “We had a play called to him, but I saw leverage for a better route and he saw it too. I had all faith in the world that (Dell) would win on the route, catch the ball and get in the end zone. It was an easy decision for me. I just put it out there and let him do the rest.”

Dell saw the same thing, a testament to the chemistry he and Tune have built over the past three seasons.

“I gave Tune that look,” Dell said. “He knows what that look means.”

It paid off as Tune, who had connected with Dell 217 times throughout his career entering Friday’s game, found his favorite target one last time for a 12-yard touchdown, erasing what was once a 13-point deficit and lifting UH over Louisiana 23-16 in the Independence Bowl at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La.

“That’s exactly the way I would have scripted it,” Tune said.

Tune, who finished with 216 yards and three touchdowns through the air, passed SMU’s Tanner Mordecai for most touchdown passes in a single season in American Athletic Conference history with 40, which also is the most in the country this season. Tune also became the AAC’s leader in total touchdowns responsible for with 119.

Dell finished six receptions for 44 yards and two touchdowns, ending his final collegiate season with 109 catches for 1,398 yards and a nation-leading 17 touchdowns.

After amassing just 46 yards on its first three drives, the UH offense finally broke out of its cold spell late in the second quarter as Tune hit senior receiver KeSean Carter for a 33-yard touchdown.

“That was the kickstart we needed on offense,” Tune said. “KeSean made a really good play that helped us and set it in motion.”

Dell hauled in his first touchdown of the afternoon on the opening possession of the second half, hauling in a pass from 2 yards out to cap off the 13-play, 70-yard drive.

Tied at 16 with just under three minutes on the clock, Tune got things started with a 33-yard run on a final drive that perfectly captured UH’s season

Two straight holding penalties resulting in a first-and-30 were no problem for Tune as the he fired a dart to senior receiver KeSean Carter for a gain of 41 yards.

Two plays later Ta’Zhawn Henry fumbled but left tackle Patrick Paul jumped on the football, preserving the UH drive.

Keeping the ball in his own hands after the near turnover, Tune scrambled for 15 more yards, setting up his game-winning pass to Dell.

“Today was like the rest of the year,” Holgorsen said. “To be down at halftime again and to come back on a two-minute drive and score is what the whole season’s been about. I just commend our guys for having a never quit attitude.”

Jayce Rogers sealed the win in the closing seconds by picking off Louisiana’s Zeon Chriss.

Rogers interception was one of three turnovers forced by the Cougars defense that had struggled to create takeaways all season. Junior defensive lineman Sedrick Williams forced and recovered a fumble early in the third quarter. Louisiana running back Chris Smith coughed up the ball for the second time in the fourth quarter as sophomore linebacker Jamal Morris forced the fumble that was jumped on by senior linebacker Donavan Mutin

Outside of Louisiana’s opening 15-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a toe-tapping touchdown grab by tight end Johnny Lumpkin from quarterback Chandler Fields, the Cougars’ defense limited the Ragin’ Cajuns to just field goals the rest of the first half. UH shut out Louisiana in the second half.

UH finished their final season as a member of the AAC at 8-5.

Next time the Cougars take the field, they will do so as a part of the Big 12.

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