Mandatory Credit: Photo by Justin Manning/CSM/Shutterstock (13683329cg) , 2022, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA: Houston Cougars wide receiver Nathaniel Dell (1) after the catch before scoring the winning touchdown in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. Justin Manning/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM NCAA Football Independence Bowl Louisiana vs. Houston, Shreveport, USA – 23 Dec 2022
The Houston Cougars football team’s penultimate offensive play of the 2022 season came down to its dynamic duo — a fitting end to the year.
Tank and Tune. A connection between a senior quarterback and his top junior receiver, both of whom will now pursue careers in the National Football League. With 27 seconds left in the Independence Bowl, the Cougars and Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns were tied at 16. Coming out of a timeout, Houston was supposed to go with a corner route for Nathaniel “Tank” Dell.
But then, quarterback Clayton Tune noticed the way the Ragin’ Cajuns were playing defense. Louisiana’s defensive back was playing off of Dell, which meant if Houston stayed with the route, the defender could sit on it and make a play, Tune said. Dell noticed it too.
“Before the play happened, I gave Tune that look,” Dell said. “He know what that look mean. I gave him that look of I want the ball right here, and so he sent me in motion and gave me the ball.”
Dell ran an out route toward the sideline. Tune placed the ball right in his chest, then the receiver turned around, made Louisiana safety Bralen Trahan miss, and dove into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
“I had all the faith in the world that he was going to win on the route, catch the ball and get in the end zone,” Tune said. “It was an easy decision for me. I just put it out there and let him do the rest. I couldn’t be happier with the way it happened.”
Heading into the game, Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said he gave Tune the ability to call the team’s offensive plays against the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Because of his quarterback’s familiarity with what Louisiana’s defense wanted to do, it was Tune that changed the play that put the Cougars (8-5) in front with only 20 seconds left.
The touchdown catch was the duo’s 17th of the season, which made Dell the top receiver in the entire country in receiving touchdowns.
“This is the nation’s leader in touchdown receptions,” Holgorsen said as he patted his receiver on the back. “He needed one, and he got two, so that is a huge accomplishment.”
Tune was named offensive player of the game in the Independence Bowl. For both, it marked a perfect end to their tenure with the Houston Cougars football team.
“That is exactly the way I would have scripted it,” Tune said.
For Holgorsen, the entire game served as a microcosm of how the 2022 season went for his team. A campaign that left him exhausted and with a headache, he said. But above all else, it left him proud of his players because of their resiliency.
Not only did Houston’s offense score 17 points in the second half, but its defense shut out Louisiana in the second half, forcing three turnovers that kept the Cougars within striking distance and allowed them to hold on at the end, Holgorsen said.
“To be down at halftime again and come back on a two-minute drive and score is what the whole season has been about,” Holgorsen stated.
Now with 2022 behind them, the Houston Cougars will take solace in ending the year with a win.
The season did not end with the Cougars meeting the expectations put forth by both the players and across the league. While Houston did not win the American Athletic Conference, it was able to secure a trophy as it sets its sights on the Big 12 Conference.
“I just commend our guys for having a never quit attitude and being resilient and creating a pretty special memory, which [was] winning a bowl game like this,” Holgorsen said.