RUSTON, LA. -- Joe Raymond Peace and his Louisiana Tech Bulldogs have an image problem. They're having a difficult time convincing people they belong in a Division I-A bowl game.

Just three years since they jumped from Division I-AA, the Bulldogs have pulled off an 8-3 season and won a berth in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., Saturday against Maryland.

The bowl bid is all the proof Peace needs that his team has arrived. "There are only 38 teams playing in postseason games, and we're one of them," said Peace, a former Tech linebacker in his third season as the coach. "I don't know what other proof you need."

Despite the 11th-rated offense and 25th-rated defense in the nation, doubts persist. Although Louisiana Tech's campus is just 60 miles from Shreveport and there is a base of 10,000 alumni in the city, the Bulldogs were not considered a favorite to get into the bowl until the three days before bids were offered.

"There are concerns about the number of people Tech will bring to the game," Independence Bowl chairman Brant Goyne said two weeks before inviting Tech. "Economic impact is very important."

Questions also surfaced about the quality of Tech's schedule. Four of their eight victories came over Division I-AA opponents. Under NCAA rules that will go into effect next season, Tech wouldn't have qualified for the bowl; six victories over I-A teams will be required.

"We have to fill our schedule," Peace said. "You can't do that with all I-A teams unless you never want to play at home. Besides, we beat those teams by a combined score of 153-39."

His players rail at any question that they don't belong. They paid their dues, they say, during two tough years. In 1987, they played at Houston, Wyoming, Florida State and Texas A&M, losing by an average of six touchdowns. Last season, they finished 5-4-1 despite not playing at home until the sixth week of the season.

"We didn't crash this party; we earned our way in," senior split end Bobby Slaughter said.

The arguments Tech can make with its stat sheets are persuasive. The Bulldogs go into the Independence Bowl with a five-game winning streak. They averaged 34 points over those five games and finished with a come-from-behind 31-30 victory over Freedom Bowl-bound Colorado State.

Their only loss in the last 10 games came when Auburn kicked a field goal with three seconds left for a 16-14 victory at home.

"It was no fluke," Auburn Coach Pat Dye said of that game. "They're a very good, very well-prepared football team."

The formula the Bulldogs have used is simple and effective. Pile up points and yards, and play enough defense to keep the other team honest. They've averaged 450 yards per game in an enviable balance of running and passing. They've averaged 238 yards through the air, 212 on the ground.

"You load up against one and they'll burn you with the other," said Northeast Louisiana Coach Dave Roberts, a 31-7 loser to the Bulldogs. "They've beaten teams either way."

Junior Gene Johnson, who is sneaking up on NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw's school records for passing and total offense, has thrown for 2,129 yards and 13 touchdowns. His backup, sophomore Sam Hughes, has four touchdown passes and 484 yards in just 60 passing attempts.

Slaughter, an all-American candidate, is second in the nation with 78 receptions for 994 yards. Flanker Eddie Brown has 50 catches for another 799 yards. Between them, they have 11 touchdown receptions.

Senior running back Michael Richardson is only the third Tech runner to break the 1,000-yard mark, having rushed for 1,114 yards and 13 touchdowns. During the season, he had six 100-yard games, topped by a 168-yard effort in the last game of the year.

When Richardson was forced to miss two games with a leg injury, sophomore backup Jason Davis ran for 211 yards against Arkansas State and 302 yards against Southwestern Louisiana. He finished with 929 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Bulldogs have forced 31 turnovers. The 308 yards they give up per game is 25th in the nation; the 16.8 scoring average is 22nd. Myron Baker leads the team with 119 tackles and four sacks. Freshman Eric Shaw has 108 tackles, three sacks and nine tackles behind the line. And senior cornerback Freddy Smith has five of the team's 19 interceptions.

In Maryland, Peace sees a team that closely resembles his Bulldogs.

"They look like they are big, strong and run well," he said. "A lot of the things we do, they do."

Terrapins quarterback Scott Zolak is a lot like Johnson, Peace said. That has him worried. "The guy can really throw the ball," he said. "On the films, he does a good job of finding his receivers and he is a very accurate thrower."

In other words, Peace said, Zolak belongs in I-A football. But, then again, he insists his Bulldogs do too.