Nov. 26, 2011
RUSTON - It was a fitting end to a championship run.
Louisiana Tech's defense recorded its first shutout at home since the mid-1990s, the Bulldog offense used a balanced attack led by walk-on running back Hunter Lee and the special teams unit added a score of its own as Tech blanked New Mexico State 44-0 Saturday afternoon under rain-soaked conditions at Joe Aillet Stadium.
With the win, Tech (8-4, 6-1 WAC) won the Western Athletic Conference regular season title for the first time since 2001 and earned a trip to the San Diego Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 21 to face either TCU or Boise State.
"It's good to get that last win and have a chance to look back at the whole thing now," said Tech head coach Sonny Dykes. "It's been a fun ride for this whole football team and it's been great for everybody associated with this program. Surely, it feels great to win a championship and when we started camp, we knew we had the personnel to do so. We started off the season kind of rough, and everybody hung in there. It speaks about the character of our team as a whole because losing is a difficult thing to do."
Heading into the day tied with Nevada in the league standings, Tech's lopsided win parlayed with the Wolf Pack's 21-17 loss at Utah State gave the Bulldogs the outright league championship belt.
Following the final gun, WAC Commissioner Karl Benson presented the championship trophy to the team while Poinsettia Bowl Chairman Bruce Binkowsky extended the invite to the postseason game in San Diego.
Tech started the scoring on its first possession as Tech drove 77 yards in 12 plays and took a 3-0 advantage on a Matt Nelson 32-yard field goal at the 9:15 mark of the first quarter. The big play of the drive was a 35-yard completion from Colby Cameron to wide receiver Taulib Ikharo.
After the Bulldogs defense forced a punt, Cameron directed LA Tech's first touchdown drive of the game as this one covered 89 yards on 10 plays. The drive started with a 42-yard completion to Quinton Patton and culminated with a six-yard strike to Ikharo. Nelson extra point was no good as Tech led 9-0.
The game stayed tight until late into the second quarter when Tech scored a pair of touchdowns in the final 30 seconds of the half. The first game on a Hunter one-yard plunge with only 28 seconds remaining in the second quarter, culminating an impressive 13-play, 96-yard drive - the longest of the season for Tech. Cameron gained 44 yards rushing on the drive, including a 24-yard scamper that put the Bulldogs in the red zone.
Trailing 16-0 New Mexico State opted to take a chance late, and the decision backfired. Freshman quarterback Travaughn Colwell was intercepted by Bulldog linebacker Adrien Cole who returned it 45 yards for a touchdown as Tech took a 23-0 lead into the locker room.
"It was critical because it all changed over a one minute span," Dykes said. "It was 9-0 and a minute later it was 23-0. That was the key for us. We put together a nice drive to score and then returned an interception to score again. That's something we've done all season. Our defense has done an excellent job at creating turnovers and then making big plays out of those turnovers."
The interception return for a TD was the Bulldogs sixth on the season.
"Defensively, they kept us in it early in the game when they were up 9-0," said NMSU coach Dwayne Walker. "I take full responsibility for the interception right before halftime because I told them to take a shot at the end zone and just see what we can get out of it. I wanted to at least get into field goal range and he (Adrien Cole) went and returned the interception for a touchdown. That's when it all went downhill for us."
Any change of an Aggie comeback was doused in the third quarter as Lee touchdown runs of six- and seven-yards bookended an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown by Craig Johnson as Tech took a commanding 44-0 lead into the final period.
Lee rushed for a career-high 148 yards and three touchdowns while Cameron passed for 217 yards and one score, including eight receptions for 105 yards and one touchdown to Ikharo.
Cole led a tenacious Bulldog defense, recording 12 tackles.
Tech's defense held an Aggies team that had entered the game averaging over 27 points per game to zero as New Mexico State totaled 279 yards and the Bulldogs defense registered seven sacks.
The victory was the seventh straight for the Bulldogs, the longest winning streak since the early 1970s and the eight regular season wins is the most since the 1999 Tim Rattay-led Bulldogs went 8-3 in 1999.
"It's a culmination of a lot of hard work," Dykes said. "The thing people don't realize about all of our guys is the amount of hard work they put into preparing for games. The players, supporting staff, team doctors, everyone ... they do so many things that aren't even seen. We wouldn't be in this position without so many people involved with the program. Everybody has been pulling the rope in the same direction and when everybody involved does that, your team will be successful."
The Bulldogs bowl bid is the first since 2008 when Tech defeated Northern Illinois 17-10 in the Independence Bowl.