Independence Bowl was ideal destination for Cougars

FEELING GOOD:  Houston coach Dana Holgorsen likes coming to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl. (Photo courtesy UH Athletics)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

When Houston coach Dana Holgorsen scanned the list of bowl games considering his Cougars, a disappointing 7-5 after a final-week home loss to a bad Tulsa team, one jumped out at him.

It was a bowl game that’s drawn more than its fair share of mockery from pundits who can’t believe visiting Shreveport has merit. But Houston was anything but indifferent about being part of the 46th Annual Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl on Friday, Dec. 23.

The location had appeal for UH, just four hours north. But the pivotal factor was the fit into the recruiting calendar, critical to operations for every college program and especially so for the Cougars, who are moving up from the American Athletic Conference and back into the Big 12.

Holgorsen came to Houston four seasons ago after being head coach for eight years at West Virginia, the last seven with the Mountaineers in the Big 12. Returning to that league for 2023, he knows he must bolster his roster.

“Transitioning from the American to the Big 12, from the Group of 5 to the Power 5, this is going to be a huge challenge,” said Holgorsen. “Once everybody sees that Big 12 schedule, they’ll understand what we’re up against.”

He believes playing in the Independence Bowl is a crucial early step in the right direction. In a media Zoom conference Monday, he was loving that UH’s bowl strategy came together.

“We kind of targeted Shreveport and made it known that this is where we wanted to go,” he said, “because the date to me is perfect. I did not want to play a game on the 17th, because then you lose a recruiting weekend and you lose four days of prep prior to that.

“(Recruiting) goes dead on the 18th, and we can start practicing our tails off for 2-3 days, travel to Shreveport and play, and be home for Christmas Eve, and more importantly, not miss any recruiting whatsoever,” he said.

Holgorsen has taken 10 teams to a bowl, and is making his third straight bowl appearance as Houston’s head coach.

“I know the history of the Independence Bowl,” he said, “have watched it forever, and it has a lot of great tradition, so we’re excited about being part of that.

“This is one I haven’t been to, (but) I’ve spent time driving through Shreveport, and we’ve done a little recruiting in Shreveport. It’s four hours from here, which I think will excite our fan base,” he said.

He also likes lining up against Louisiana-Lafayette, which fits the profile of the programs Houston is scheduling for non-conference contests – nearby Group of 5 schools like Rice, UTSA, North Texas and ULL. Houston and Lafayette share some common ground as hub cities in the Deep South’s oil patch.

The Cougars opened this season ranked in the Top 25, and the Ragin’ Cajuns ended last season there.

The teams played Rice in successive weeks. A then-struggling ULL squad lost 33-21 at Rice on Sept. 17 and Houston won the crosstown game 34-27 a week later at home.

“Bowl games, to survive, they’ve got to create some interesting matchups, and this is an interesting matchup,” Holgorsen said.

The Cougars’ 7-5 finish is not what the UH administration or fans had in mind when Holgorsen was lured away from West Virginia, or when his $4 million contract was extended to 2027.

“We did not meet expectations. I am well aware of that. I am very disappointed in what the final record is. I am very disappointed in the last loss. I am proud of our team’s resiliency, not giving up. I am very proud this team did not throw in the towel (at 2-3 after five games),” Holgorsen said.

“We had what was probably our best game in Week 11 against East Carolina (a 42-3 romp), and we’re feeling pretty good about Senior Day and Game 12, but then we don’t play good (a 37-30 home loss to Tulsa), and it’s disappointing.

“There have been years where I haven’t been excited about a bowl game. I’m pretty excited about this one,” he said, “because we left one out there in our last game. I feel like we owe people a win and we’re going to treat it like that.”

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