RUSTON, La. -- You'll pardon Joe Raymond Peace if he sounds a little like Aretha Franklin these days.
"This is exactly what this program needed," Peace said of the school's first bid to a Division I-A bowl. "We have a chance now to show the nation that we may be new to this level, but we know how to play this game."
After back-to-back losing seasons in their first two years as a I-A team, the Bulldogs have fashioned an 8-3 season that has included a 31-30 upset of Freedom Bowl-bound Colorado State in the season finale. It took a field goal with three seconds left for Auburn to nip the Bulldogs, 16-14, at home.
"Louisiana Tech is as well-prepared a football team as any I've ever faced," Auburn coach Pat Dye said after the narrow escape. "They play every down like the game is on the line."
Tech people say that they have to. As the newest kid on the I-A block, they've been sorely tested.
Three years ago, the Bulldogs' football program made the move from Division I-AA, where they were a perennial power. For a VTC university with an enrollment of just 10,200 students, no major television market and no conference tie, the move was risky.
"We knew all along that we would have to take our lumps for a while," former athletic director Paul Miller said. "What we tried to stress to our fans and our players was perseverance. Good times weren't going to be that far away."
Tech jumped into the deep end of the Division I-A pool in 1988. Peace, in his first year, had to send his team against the likes of Florida State, Texas A&M;, Houston and Wyoming -- all on the road. The four losses were by a combined 220-26 margin.
"We were getting run over like a chicken that wasn't fast enough or smart enough to get out of the road," Peace said. "But the kids never lost heart, not once."
In 1988, Tech had just three home games. Although it had four in 1989, it didn't play at home until the sixth week of the season.
"I got onto a couple of players for not touching the Bulldog statue as they walked on the field before that first home game," Miller said. "Then I realized they weren't our players. I had forgotten what our home uniforms looked like."
Through the road trips and the beatings, Peace said he knew brighter times were ahead. By redshirting entire recruiting classes and picking up an occasional junior-college transfer, he was building a team.
"I knew the team we would put on the field in 1990 had the talent to win on this level," he said. "This is the most talented team I've ever coached."
Statistics bear Peace out.
The Bulldogs' offense averaged 30 points per game this season. Their 449.8-yard average was 11th in the nation and was split fairly evenly between passing and running (237.5 to 212.3).
Senior split end Bobby Slaughter is second in the nation in receiving, with 78 receptions for 994 yards. Flanker Eddie Brown has caught 50 passes for another 799 yards. Between the two, they have 11 touchdown receptions.
Junior quarterback Gene Johnson has moved into second place on the school's all-time passing list, just behind National Football League Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, after throwing for 2,129 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Senior running back Michael Richardson rushed for 1,114 yards, despite missing two games. In those two games, sophomore Jason Davis ran for 211 and 302 yards, respectively, finishing the year with 929 yards.
The defense is 22nd in the nation, allowing just 16.8 points per game. The 308.3 yards-per-game average is 25th nationally.
Sophomore linebacker Myron Baker leads the team with 119 tackles and four sacks, and freshman defensive Eric Shaw end is a close second with 108 and three sacks. He has nine other tackles for losses.
Senior cornerback Freddy Smith leads the team with five interceptions.
Freshman kicker Chris Boniol has hit 17 of 24 field-goal attempts and 38 of 39 extra-point tries. Punter Brad Boozer is ranked 12th in the nation in net punting, with a 37.7 average.
"All the statistics and all the wins still haven't got us to the point where we feel we've been accepted as a I-A team," said Slaughter, who learned to catch a football while working as a ball boy for the team. "But now, we're one of only 38 teams in the whole country going to a bowl game. That says something."