View from the Radio Booth: Teddy Allen-Style
Sept. 18, 2017
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. -- Not 30 seconds after Jonathan Barnes and his teammates had scored a 21-yard field goal with :02 left to play to beat Western Kentucky, 23-22, in the Conference USA lid-lifter for both of the league’s preseason division favorites, Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Todd Fitch picked up his notes and his nerves and, thankful he had a pulse again and finally the lead in just the nick of time, tapped a friend on the shoulder before heading from the visiting coaches’ booth to the winning locker room.
“Had ’em all the way,” he whispered, smiling like he’d stolen something, which maybe he had. After all, the homestanding Hilltoppers, winners of 13 straight C-USA games at home and the defending league champs, had led for 59:58 on this warm September night.
“Had ’em all the way.” Maybe Fitch was wrong. But maybe he was right and maybe it didn’t matter, because the numbers on the scoreboard weren’t going to change, and those are the only stats that really matter.
Maybe Tech had ’em all the way, but it sure didn’t look like it after the ’Toppers, on their second possession, drove 80 yards in 11 plays to score. They took an 8-0 lead by converting a two-point swinging-gate play that looked like a cross between the first practice of peewee league and a fire drill.
It didn’t look like it when, to start the second quarter, WKU put together another long drive, running motion and misdirection and scoring again on the 10th play of a 73-yard march to take a 15-10 lead.
It didn’t look like it when Rhashid Bonnette dropped a third-quarter bomb around the 10 that would have been a TD and Tech’s first lead of the night. Tech eventually punted and -- long-drive time again -- WKU went 78 yards in eight plays and, on his first carry of the night, true freshman Jakairi Moses went untouched around left end to give the home team a 22-13 lead going into the final quarter.
Finally, it didn’t look like it when Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith, his team trailing 22-20 with 3:30 left in the game and the program’s All-time leading kick scorer loosening his leg on the sideline, threw a deep-ball interception on second-and-four from his own 45, his teammate Kam McKnight wide open in the flat with a chance to catch a short pass and hustle into field-goal range.
It didn’t look like Tech had ’em all the way then. Looked more like Tech had been had, just as they’d been had up here in 2015 and in last year’s conference championship game.
So there’s that. But there’s also Tech 23, WKU 22. So...hang on just a second.
Fitch and the Gang figured out something, and it all fit with seven minutes left in the first half and Tech trailing, 15-3. Bonnette, the speedy 6-0, 171-pound sophomore from Loreauville, was as open as a church on Sunday more than 50 yards from the line of scrimmage on the second play of a drive that had started at the 10. Smith’s toss was a little late, and Bonnette slowed, caught it, then made a cut for the far corner and ran and ran and ran and dove for the goal line to complete an 87-yard touchdown and the ninth-longest pass in school history.
So 15-10 WKU, 7:05 left in the first half.
(It wouldn’t be the last time Bonnette was wide open. He caught only three balls -- but for 140 yards. If he makes the third-quarter catch, he’s got more than 200 yards on four catches. So...stick around. Bonnette’s night is not over.)
Tech got its offense the ball back in less than two minutes, and Tech goes into the half trailing 15-13 after Barnes’ 36-yard field goal that capped a 12-play, 67-yard drive. So from Tech in the first half you’ve seen 11- and 12-play scoring drives, plus the TD bomb, only one penalty, no turnovers, on the road, and you get the feeling you’re watching a team that is discovering it has a chance to be good if it doesn’t make the sorts of mistakes it made against Mississippi State last week in a Poltergeist-flavored 57-21 loss.
In the third quarter, Tech weathered the dropped bomb for the go-ahead TD and the Moses rush for a score but were still standing and with a fighting-man’s chance, trailing 22-13, needing to pitch a shutout and score 10 points in the final 8:15.
They did just that, and here’s how.
Starting at their own 9, they moved to the 16 quickly, the big plays being a pass to DeJuawn Oliver, a draw to Jarred Craft and a diving catch good for 38 yards to -- wait for it -- Bonnette. A lay out, two-arm cradle job. Landed on the ball and knocked the air out of himself. Then two minutes and 91 yards after the drive had started, Kam McKnight scored from two yards out, his 8th career rushing TD on 18 career rushing attempts, and Tech trails 22-20 with 6:08 left.
DeMarion King had a big third-down open-field tackle to force a Hilltopper punt with 4:28 remaining, but Smith threw the interception intended for Bonnette and WKU had the ball with 3:30 left.
Tech had to get it back. And they did.
In defense of the Hilltoppers, they have seven new coaches, eight counting their new head coach, Mike Sanford. Their No. 1 tailback didn’t play and their No. 2 back was hurt midway through the fourth. Maybe they got away offensively from some of the things that worked early, and maybe Tech took some things away, and maybe they wanted to run clock with a 9-point lead and didn’t run it enough.
Regardless, the Bulldog defense held the Hilltoppers to 18 yards on 15 fourth-quarter plays. Read that again. Frame it so, if you’re a Bulldog fan, you can read it sometime if you’re feeling blue. Remember that big tackle by King. Remember the calf-rope sack by linebacker Brandon Durman, who finished with nine tackles. And remember Tech end Jaylon Ferguson and his bowl-over-and-inside-and-past WKU left tackle Jimmie Sims to sack Hilltopper quarterback Mike White, the league’s 2016 Newcomer of the Year, as Sims slapped the Fiex Field turf.
WKU punts. Tech on its own 32. 1:55 left.
Incomplete pass. Then a completion to 6-2 Adrian Hardy on the far sideline. Quick slant to Teddy Veal off an audible for another first down. And just like that, it’s first-and-10 on the ’Topper 26, Barnes is putting his helmet on, and there’s still 1:36 to play.
After an incompletion, Boston Scott runs up the middle, is tackled by an illegal horse collar, it’s first-and-goal from the 9, Craft runs twice to the 4 while the clock ticks, Skip Holtz calls time out, and a former Bulldog baseball pitcher-turned-grad-student, Cameron Linck, deep snaps to Will Parker, a walk-on punter, and Barnes knocks it through and up onto The Berm, the raised hillside beyond the stadium’s north end zone where all the red-clad Hilltopper students could only helplessly watch and wonder where that 9-point lead went to, back during a happier time when it looked like the Hilltoppers had ’em all the way.
But now here’s Fitch smiling. There’s Barnes and Parker and Linck knocking helmets. Look at offensive line coach Robert McFarland, whose crew had given Smith those clean pockets for the deep throws, hugging whoever is in reach in the end zone outside the Tech locker room because, dang, the last two times you’ve come here you’ve left helmet in hand, just as 13 conference visitors in a row had before; that’ll bring out the hug in a guy.
Look at all these guys in unrehearsed celebration, even if it’s only after a conference opener on the road where you’ve never won before, even if it’s only against the defending conference champs, even if it’s only one of those ho-hum games when you had em all the way.
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