By John Henry
Louisiana Tech’s recipe for an unprecedented third bowl victory in consecutive years Saturday rested with the familiar duo of Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson in a Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl game that came down to the kicker.
Taylor, the game’s MVP, had game-record totals of 12 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns, and Henderson added 129 yards and two TDs for the Bulldogs, who defeated No. 25 Navy 48-45 on a 32-yard field goal off the foot of Jonathan Barnes in the closing seconds at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Quarterback Ryan Higgins passed for 409 yards and four TDs on 29-of-40 passing for the Bulldogs, who finished 2016 at 9-5 and capturing its third bowl victory in consecutive years, unprecedented at Louisiana Tech.
Taylor had TD receptions of 19 and 51 yards. Henderson had a Louisiana Tech-bowl record 215 all-purpose yards with TD scores of 3 and 4 yards.
“Trent Taylor is an incredible competitor,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “People want to evaluate a football player by his height, weight and speed. They think it’s all about the [measurables], and that’s why a guy like this is at Louisiana Tech.
“He’s at his best on the biggest stage. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s going to leave a huge hole when he walks out that door.”
The Bulldogs took possession at their own 15 with 3:40 left in the game and drove the ball to Navy’s 15 in nine plays.
The field-goal make was sweet vindication for Barnes, who missed two field goals, including one to start the fourth quarter in a one-point loss to Arkansas in the Bulldogs’ season opener.
Taylor closes his college career as one of the school’s most prolific receivers, including becoming only the second player in school history to go over 4,000 yards receiving. Troy Edwards was the other. Taylor also has recorded 100 or more yards in 20 games.
“I couldn't ask for a better way for it to end,” Taylor said. “The last game of your career, to see it come down to the wire and just to be able to as an offense drive the ball down the field to get that winning field goal, there's nothing more you could ask for.”
In addition to the Bulldogs snapping a two-game skid, triumph was also a feather in the cap of Conference USA, which is now 4-1 in the postseason.
The teams combined for 956 total yards, and each did it their way in the highest-scoring Armed Forces Bowl.
Of Louisiana Tech’s 497 total, 409 yards were generated through the pass. Out of their triple-option offense, Navy (9-5) racked up 459 total yards, including 300 rushing.
“Couldn’t be more proud of the guys around me,” Taylor said. “We executed to the best of our ability. Nobody flinched. Coach tells us that all the time, ‘just don’t flinch.’ We all believed in each other, and we had confidence that we were going to get the job done, and that’s what we did.”
The Bulldogs put Navy in a 10-0 hole to start the game.
Louisiana Tech started the game’s first drive the Navy 16 after Henderson’s 82-yard return on the opening kickoff. On the fourth play of the game from the 1, Higgins snuck in the end zone to give Louisiana Tech an early touchdown lead.
The Bulldogs then converted Prince Sam’s fumble recovery off Navy’s first possession into a Barnes 22-yard field goal to make the score 10-0.
“We lost that possession. The way we play, we don't have a ton of possessions,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. “It just gave them the ball back. And they're so potent on offense. You don't want to give them the ball back.”
Abey’s 3-yard TD run got the Midshipmen on the board and set off a run.
After misfires on open receivers over the top, Abey finally connected with Bonner, who raced down the middle of the field for the Midshipmen’s second score to cap a two-play, 23-second drive.
Abey’s 2-yard scoring run marked the game’s first lead change, putting Navy up 21-17 at the 11:17 mark of the second quarter.
Louisiana Tech moved the ball to midfield with under 2 minutes left in the half and tied 24-all. From there Higgins again found his star receiver a second time, hitting Taylor for a 51-yard score to cap a six-play drive.