Louisiana Tech’s recipe for winning on Saturday was built by the now-calloused bare hands of Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson in an Armed Forces Bowl game that came down to the guy wearing the cleanest jersey.
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.
Their 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 captured their third bowl victory in consecutive years, unprecedented at Louisiana Tech.
Taylor had a TD reception of 19 yards and another of 51 yards just before the half. Henderson, who had a Louisiana Tech-bowl record 215 all-purpose yards, had TD scores of 3 and 4 yards.
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“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 started their decisive campaign at their own 15 with 3:40 left in the game and drove the ball to Navy’s 15 in nine plays.
The made field-goal was sweet justice 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 leaves Louisiana Tech 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.
Over his career, Taylor has 20 games of 100 or more yards.
“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, as an offense, to 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, the triumph was also a feather in the cap for Conference USA, which is now 4-1 in the postseason .
If fans came to watch a defensive struggle, they came to the wrong game, which turned out to be the highest-scoring Armed Forces Bowl, surpassing last year’s 55-36 Cal win over Air Force.
The teams combined for 956 total yards, and each did it their way.
Of Louisiana Tech’s 497 total, 409 yards were generated through the pass. Out of its 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.”
After throwing two interceptions in his first career start, against Army on Dec. 10, Navy quarterback Zach Abey more resembled a seasoned starter on Saturday. Abey had 273 total yards and accounted for three touchdowns, two on short runs and a 64-yard pass to Darryl Bonner.
The Bulldogs put Navy in a 10-0 hole to start the game.
Louisiana Tech started the game’s first drive at 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 into the end zone to give Louisiana Tech an early touchdown lead.
The Bulldogs then turned Prince Sam’s fumble recovery off Navy’s first possession into a Jonathan 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 to 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.
Tied at 24-all just before half, Louisiana Tech moved the ball to midfield, and from there Higgins dialed up his star receiver a second time, hitting Taylor for a 51-yard score to cap a six-play drive.
LT—R.Higgins 1 run (Barnes kick), 13:35
LT—FG Barnes 22, 9:48
NAV—Abey 3 run (Moehring kick), 4:04
LT—T.Taylor 19 pass from R.Higgins (Barnes kick), :18
NAV—Bonner 64 pass from Abey (Moehring kick), 14:49
NAV—Abey 2 run (Moehring kick), 11:17
LT—Henderson 3 pass from R.Higgins (Barnes kick), 7:15
NAV—FG Moehring 40, 2:02
LT—T.Taylor 51 pass from R.Higgins (Barnes kick), :35
NAV—High 24 run (Moehring kick), 7:53
LT—B.Scott 12 run (Barnes kick), 13:10
NAV—High 9 run (Moehring kick), 9:05
LT—Henderson 4 pass from R.Higgins (Barnes kick), 4:12
NAV—Perry 30 run (Moehring kick), 3:46
LT—FG Barnes 32, :00
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Louisiana Tech, Craft 17-63, B.Scott 7-33, (Team) 1-(minus 1), R.Higgins 8-(minus 7). Navy, Abey 25-114, Romine 3-47, High 7-46, Perry 1-30, Bonner 4-22, Cass Jr. 6-19, T.Walker 1-15, Sh.White 2-7.
PASSING—Louisiana Tech, R.Higgins 29-40-0-409. Navy, Abey 7-12-0-159.
RECEIVING—Louisiana Tech, T.Taylor 12-233, Henderson 10-129, C.Smith 4-34, A.Smith 1-7, Bonnette 1-5, Craft 1-1. Navy, Bonner 2-79, Tillman 2-16, High 1-38, Joh.Brown 1-16, Colon 1-10.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.