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Ohio vs. ULM, 2012 Independence Bowl preview: Bring the funk

Ohio and UL-Monroe were the country's mid-major darlings in September, pulling off early-season upsets of Penn State and Arkansas, respectively. But injuries held both teams back down the stretch. Who has the edge now that both squads have healed up a bit? Dec. 28, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN.

Wesley Hitt

5 Players To Watch

Kolton Browning (QB, ULM, Jr.). You might remember Kolton Browning from such episodes as, "The Warhawks shock Arkansas in overtime," and, "They almost do the same to Auburn and Baylor." UL-Monroe was one of September's most entertaining stories, and despite some key injuries, the Warhawks played at a high enough level to qualify for their first-ever bowl game. Browning is the lynchpin, a lefty with a funky release who serves as a perfect hub for ULM's short passing game. A year after completing just 58 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions, Browning improved to 65 percent, 27 TDs and seven INTs in 2012. He has a deep, interesting receiving corps, and despite increased pressure on the passing game -- with season-ending injuries to two different ULM backs, Jyruss Edwards and Centarius Donald, the two RBs atop the depth chart have combined for just 106 carries this season -- Browning has come through. He missed most of two losses (UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State) with his own injury, meaning ULM is 8-2 when Browning is healthy enough to finish the game. He can run, too, when he needs to.

Brent Leonard (WR, ULM, Sr.). ULM attempts about 43 passes per game, and all things considered, Browning spreads the ball around nicely. Running backs get two or three tosses per game, Je'Ron Hamm and Tavarese Maye get about 15 looks, and four other wideouts are targeted at least once per game. But Leonard is the leader of the, "extension of the run game," aspect of ULM's attack. For the season, Leonard caught 97 of 134 balls (72 percent catch rate) for 1,042 yards (7.8 per target) and 10 touchdowns. The Warhawks run the ball just 48 percent of the time on standard downs (112th highest in the country) and 30 percent on passing downs (82nd), and Leonard is, as often as not, the No. 1 option for Browning.

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Tyler Tettleton (QB, Ohio, Jr.). Somehow only a junior, Tettleton is already Ohio's all-time leader in passing downs and makes up one-half of Ohio's all-Oklahoma backfield. Both Tettleton and running back Beau Blankenship hail from Norman, OK, and it feels like both of them have been at Ohio since about 2003. The 6'0, 200-pound Tettleton is an interesting combination of aggressive runner (90 non-sack carries for 421 yards, four touchdowns) and conservative passer; he both takes and delivers hits, rushing eight or nine times per game and getting sacked on seven percent of his pass attempts, but he takes few chances through the air and has thrown just three interceptions all season. Like Browning, he spreads the ball around pretty well -- 10 different Bobcats have been targeted at least 10 times this year, and seven have been targeted at least 24 times -- but that perhaps wasn't by choice. No. 1 receiver Donte Foster has been battling injuries for much of the season, and Ohio has been desperate to find a vertical threat. Most of Tettleton's sacks came in the season's home stretch, when Foster's injuries had their largest impact.

Jelani Woseley (WLB, Ohio, Sr.). Ohio ranks just 83rd in Def. F/+ and, in part because of injuries, possesses no standout strength, but in Woseley the Bobcats do have a pretty diverse play-maker. Woseley was second on the team with 7.0 tackles for loss (the leader in this category was tackle Neal Huynh, a run-stuffer trying to shake off a foot injury) and first in passes defensed with three picks and five passes broken up. With ULM throwing so many passes close to the line of scrimmage, Woseley could have some opportunities to make plays. But he'll need some help from a secondary that starts three sophomores.

R.J. Young (MLB, ULM, Sr.). ULM's defense wasn't particularly good, either, ranking just 85th in Def. F/+. But they were fun to watch, anyway, playing out of an aggressive 3-3-5 look and logging 75 tackles for loss (while leaking quite a few big plays along the way). Young is the quarterback of the unit, so to speak; with 10.5 tackles for loss (none of which were of the sack variety), he is the key to a downright decent run defense (65th in Rushing S&P+). ULM tends to fall apart on passing downs, but they could force quite a few second- and third-and-longs against the Ohio run game.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Because Todd Berry deserves your attention. ULM returned to the FBS ranks in 1994 and never threatened to become anything other than an also-ran in an iffy Sun Belt conference. The Warhawks never once finished with a winning record before Berry took over, making more news for their incredibly low revenue than their play on the field. Berry, who bombed in four years at Army (he went 5-42 in four seasons as head coach at West Point), took on this job with both defiance and a deft sense of reality. Knowing he couldn't go about business in a normal way, he installed an aggressive, unpredictable, underdog-friendly spread offense and a 3-3-5 defense. His Warhawks were one point from bowl eligibility in 2010 but fell victim to injuries and tight losses (0-3 in one-possession games) in falling to 4-8 in 2011. But despite another run of injuries, it has come together nicely for ULM in 2012, and Barry deserves an incredible amount of credit for that.

2. Because Frank Solich deserves your attention. In the 20 years before Frank Solich took over at Ohio, the Bobcats averaged just 3.1 wins per season. Take out a relatively successful six-year stay for eventual Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe, and that average falls to 2.0. But in the eight years since Solich took over, Ohio has finished .500 or better six times and now prepares to head to a bowl for the fourth consecutive year. That this 8-4 campaign qualifies as disappointing is, in itself, an enormous nod to what Solich has built in Athens. The Bobcats were decimated by injuries and played pretty poorly following the impressive, season-opening win at Penn State. They beat three straight bad MAC teams (UMass, Buffalo, Akron) by no more than seven points, then lost four of five to end the regular season. This wasn't how the year was supposed to go, but the Bobcats still finished with ast least eight wins for the fourth straight year and, with a bowl win, could reach nine wins or the third time in four years.

3. Funk. If you like uniqueness in your college football, this game is for you. ULM runs a confusing defense and a high-paced, spread-the-field-and-send-the-ball-to-every-nook-and-cranny offense. And Kolton Browning even adds some funkiness to the table with his weird throwing motion and skill set. Ohio, meanwhile, runs a lot, has an interesting dual-threat quarterback, and throws the ball to anybody and everybody when it has to. Ohio is much more normal than ULM in the way it goes about attempting to win football games, but neither team is without its funkiness (and flaws).

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Can Ohio establish the run? The Bobcats' offensive line will be missing at least a couple of starters, but that's nothing new. Line play has been iffy all season, limiting the run-first Ohio attack; the Bobcats rank 102nd in Adj. Line Yards and 108th in Rushing S&P+. Meanwhile, stopping the run is a ULM strength. If Tettleton and Blankenship cannot find room to run, Tettleton will be forced to make plays in consistent second- or third-and-long situations. ULM will allow a few long conversions along the way, but how many?

2. Can ULM get off the hook? Passing downs were a weakness for both the Ohio offense (with no clear vertical threat) and the ULM defense. ULM could get a boost from the return of redshirt freshman safety Mitch Lane (28.5 tackles, one pick, four passes broken up, two tackles for loss), one of the Warhawks' better defensive backs who missed five games with injury. But this is still a bit of a movable force versus resistible object matchup. ULM should be able to force passing downs, but that won't matter if Ohio is allowed to convert them.

3. Who's happy to be here (but not too happy)? Ohio had dreams of an undefeated season after the win over Penn State and reached 7-0 before falling apart down the stretch. ULM, meanwhile, beat Arkansas but fell just short against Auburn and Baylor and couldn't keep up in the Sun Belt title race and finished with an almost disappointing 8-4 record ("almost," because it's still their best FBS season ever). Both teams were waylaid by injuries, and both are healthier now than they were a month ago. But does ULM fall into a, "We're just happy to be here," funk? Does Ohio bring its A-game after falling so far down the MAC totem pole? And what is Ohio's A-game at this point?

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: ULM by 2.7.
Bill's Pick: ULM by 10. I think ULM is simply more likely to play at its highest level, especially in front of what will almost be a home crowd in Shreveport.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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