SHREVEPORT, La. – Clayton Tune connected with Nathaniel Dell for a 12-yard touchdown with 20 seconds remaining, and Houston rallied from a 13-point deficit to beat Louisiana-Lafayette 23-16 in the Independence Bowl.
The TD pass was Tune’s third of the game and 40th of the season, tying the senior with Western Kentucky’s Austin Reed for the most in the nation. Before the winning throw, he completed a 41-yard pass to KeSean Carter on first-and-30 to move Houston into Ragin’ Cajuns territory.
Dell, a junior who plans to enter the NFL draft, had two touchdown catches, pushing his total to a nation-best 17 this season.
The Cougars (8-5) never led until that late touchdown as Tune heated up amid unseasonably cold temperatures in northwest Louisiana. It was 25 degrees at kickoff, with a wind chill of 12 degrees.
“Today was like the rest of the year,” Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said. “The conditions were tough, but they handled it fine.
“To be down at halftime and to come back on a two-minute drive and score, that’s what the whole season has been about. They created a pretty special memory, to win a bowl game like this.”
Louisiana-Lafayette (6-7) led 13-0 midway through the second quarter and 16-6 at halftime.
Tune was named the game’s offensive MVP, finishing 19 of 28 for 216 yards. He led Houston on a 13-play, 70-yard drive to open the second half and hit Dell for a 2-yard touchdown that made it 16-13.
The Cougars kept it close from there, setting the stage for Tune’s game-winner to the 5-foot-10 Dell, nicknamed “Tank.”
“That’s exactly the way I would have scripted to go out,” Tune said. “I saw the coverage, and we had a play called to Tank. I saw leverage for a better route and he did, too. I had all the faith in the world he would win on the route, catch the ball and get into the end zone. It was an easy decision for me. I couldn’t be happier with the way it happened.”
Clinging to a three-point lead, Louisiana stuffed Houston on fourth-and-short at the Ragin’ Cajuns 5-yard line midway through the third quarter, but the Cougars eventually tied the game on Kyle Ramsey’s 19-yard field early in the fourth.
The Ragin’ Cajuns wasted a chance to retake the lead when running back Chris Smith fumbled at the Houston 4.
“They fought,” first-year Ragin Cajuns coach Mike Desormeaux said. “We made a couple of mistakes in crucial situations, but I’ve never been more proud of them.”
Louisiana-Lafayette, located three hours south of Shreveport, took the opening kick and orchestrated a 15-play, 75-yard drive that ended when tight end Johnny Lumpkin made a dazzling touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone.
The Cajuns got three field goals in the first half from by Kenneth Almendares (42, 42, and 22 yards). Chandler Fields finished 17 of 25 passing for 169 yards and a touchdown.
Tune’s first TD toss was a 33-yarder to Carter in the second quarter. Carter finished with 104 yards on three catches, and Dell had six receptions for 44 yards.
Tune and Reed, who threw six TD passes in Wednesday’s New Orleans Bowl victory over South Alabama, are three ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams of Southern California and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. Williams still has the Cotton Bowl game to play and Stroud’s Buckeyes are in the College Football Playoff.
Louisiana-Lafayette: First-year coach Michael Desormeaux guided the Ragin’ Cajuns to their first losing season since 2017 (5-7). The program had posted three consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories (34-5 in that stretch).
Houston: Coach Dana Holgorsen honored one of his mentors, the late Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, by wearing a black hoodie with “STATE” on the front. Holgorsen played for Leach at Iowa Wesleyan and later coached under him at Texas Tech. Leach died on Dec. 12.
Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin Cajuns remain in-state to open the 2023 season as they will host another Louisiana school, Northwestern State, on Sept. 2.
Houston: The Cougars open the 2023 campaign at home against UTSA on Sept. 2.