BOWL COVERAGE: Bulldogs beat ‘the odds’ and earn a bid
Dec. 17, 2017
By Teddy Allen teddy@LATech.edu
FRISCO -- Through a bizarre autumn of football, Louisiana Tech majored in abnormal — with a double minor in peculiar and strange.
It took the previous 20 Louisiana Tech football teams a combined two decades to play eight one-point games. About 240 contests, give or take. The 2017 Bulldogs played four one-point games — plus a double-overtime game — in eight weeks. And one of those weeks was a bye week.
Curious? A little. Like water’s a little wet. You can't make up a season quite like this one.
In his “Forde-Yard Dash: Bowl Edition” effort for Yahoo Sports, Pat Forde summed up the Bulldogs' three-losses-by-a-point autumn as “cruel and unusual.”
Sounds about right. If nothing else, Tech fans learned this season to keep their seat belts buckled at all times.
But while the Bulldogs couldn't quite get over the hump this fall, they did get things leveled off to finish .500, understandably a disappointment since they were picked to win the West in Conference USA and since they followed in the paw steps of three nine-wins Bulldog teams. The most recent of those teams fielded seniors who were among the most prolific receiving duos in college football history — Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson — and C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Ryan Higgins, quarterback of the 2016 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl champions.
Yet as it turns out, all’s well that ends 6-6.
“We’re practicing, we’re recruiting (Signing Day is the same as DXL Frisco Bowl Game Day — Wednesday, Dec. 20), so there’s a lot going on, but nobody’s complaining,” Tech head coach Skip Holtz said. “I don't think it could have turned out any better.”
For the first few days of December, the 6-6 Bulldogs were a bit antsy with 81 teams qualifying for bowl games and only 78 spots. “Scary,” Holtz said, “when you start doing the math.”
“We kept hearing New Mexico, then Arizona, and any of those would have been great,” he said. “But here, in Frisco, the fans can come. It’s before the heart of the holidays. It’s the only game on national TV that day. It’s in a great venue (Toyota Stadium), a smaller bowl stadium, so it ought to be packed. Playing SMU in their own back yard, similar programs, fighting the fight.
“We could not ask for a better setup for a team on the edge saying, ‘Send us anywhere,’” Holtz said. “So in this place at this site close to home and on this day and with this team, we could not ask for a better situation. And now we have one more opportunity with this group of guys and with this senior class.”
This senior class has seen three straight bowl wins. They’ve also just finished playing one of the most unconventional seasons they could have imagined. If you’re up what amounts to an amusement park ride, join me for a brief stroll through BizzaroLand.
The 2017 season opened with a 52-24 victory over Northwestern State — but it was 24-24 until Tech scored with a minute left in the third quarter. Sophomore quarterback J'Mar Smith, in the second start of his career, lost three fumbles.
Because of all the turnovers and mistakes (like a blocked kick and Smith losing two more fumbles), fans left knowing little more about Tech after a 57-21 loss to Mississippi State than they had before. A sign that the Bulldogs might be entering some sort of wacky football vortex came in the fourth quarter when Tech faced a second-and-goal from the MSU 6. A snap over Smith's head bounced, was chased, was kicked, was chased some more, and was finally recovered by Tech’s Cee Jay Powell on the Tech 7. That is a loss of 87 yards — something you don’t see every day, or maybe ever — and brought up third-and-93. On the bright side, without Powell's heroics to end the mad scramble, somebody might have gotten run over on Interstate 20.
So there was that.
The Bulldogs won on a last-second field goal the next week at Western Kentucky, knocking off the defending conference champs, 23-22. (Remember that score.) But the next week at South Carolina was the unkindest cut of all: The Bulldogs shut out the Gamecocks for three quarters before pilot error led to a 24-yard third-down scramble from Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley, who then completed a 41-yard Hail Mary to set up the Chickens' 31-yard field goal with :04 left for a 17-16 win.
Senior safety Secdrick Cooper intercepted two balls to lead a fine defensive effort in a 34-16 victory over South Alabama the following Saturday before a blocked kick at the buzzer meant a 23-22 loss (there’s that score again) at UAB. Tech had been called for 17 penalties in its first five games; in Legion Field, the Bulldogs didn’t turn the ball over but were seriously hampered by being flagged 10 times for 95 yards.
After UAB, Tech was 3-3 overall, 1-1 in Conference USA.
The ultimate indignity might have been the double-OT loss at home the next week to Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles scored 11 points in the final four minutes to tie it — Tech could not corral an onsides kick that would have allowed the ’Dogs to run out the clock with the lead — and even an Amik Robertson interception in the first overtime, a play that kept hope alive, wasn’t enough in the 34-27 loss.
Tech then went to Houston and beat Rice, 42-28, but that game was tied at 28-28 with only two minutes left in regulation before Smith, who’d protected the ball like a veteran after the season's shaky start, led Tech into scoring position late as he had against WKU, Carolina, UAB, and Southern Miss. Boston Scott scored from two yards out after an 11-play drive, then Trey Spencer’s interception return for a touchdown iced it.
Tech was back even at 4-4 and 2-2.
Then, two losses in a row. First was another one-pointer — North Texas scored with six minutes to go to erase a 23-17 deficit — and then a 48-23 loss to eventual undefeated-in-the-league C-USA champ Florida Atlantic. Tech was 3-of-4 in the first half in the red zone: three field goals, one miss. Tech ran 96 plays, controlled the ball for 40 minutes, had 512 yards of total offense — but fell too far behind early. When the Owls housed the opening kickoff of the second half — sigh...a first in the program’s history — the Fat Lady wasn't singing, but you could hear her warming up.
Now things were serious. No conference title to fight for. Not even a winning regular season to fight for. At 4-6 and 2-4, Tech was just trying to get even and get to a bowl.
Which is exactly what happened.
First was a 42-21 win at UTEP — the Bulldogs fumbled away their first two possessions because, well, no sense in making anything easy in THIS season, right? — and the next Saturday they held UTSA to a season-low six points and 201 total yards of offense in a 20-6 win to end the regular season at Joe Aillet Stadium.
“We’re 4-6 and all of a sudden there’s pressure and you’ve got to produce and these guys wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Holtz said. “You could argue that the defense in that last game of the regular season might have been the best defensive performance we’ve had here in quite some time.”
The record after that game was a level 6-6, 4-4. That’s even, which in no way reflects the ups and downs of the past three months.
One reason for the speed bumps was injuries. Every team has them. Some more than others. Last year, receiver/kick returner Carlos Henderson missed some time, including the loss at Middle Tennessee State. Tight end Conner Smith was sidelined for a month with a high ankle sprain. Stats show that Tech was the fifth-least injured team in the country. This year, the injuries the Bulldogs didn’t have last year came home to roost. Yet despite the injuries, Tech was still in position late to win four of the six games it lost. You could argue that for sure two, maybe three, possibly all four, were self-inflicted losses. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
Would it have made a difference if the guys who were hurt had been on the field at crunch time? Only the football gods know. On the bright side, with the players who were out there when it was time to win or lose a game, the Bulldogs were still in position to win.
Just for posterity’s sake, here’s a snapshot of Who Was Hurt:
Receiver Rhashid Bonnette missed one game with bruised ribs and was severely limited in three others.
Senior defensive end Deldrick Canty missed two.
Running back Jarred Craft didn’t miss a game for four years — until the final two games of the regular season. He played three plays in the finale. (He’ll be back for the DXL Frisco Bowl.)
Running back Jaqwis Dancy missed five games.
Guard O’Shea Dugas missed two games with a bum leg, but his season was affected more by the sudden loss of his mother. A trying season for Dugas, a favorite of the players; he still made second-team all-conference.
Defensive end Jaylon Ferguson missed the FAU game and limped through three others.
Redshirt freshman receiver Adrian Hardy, who made a big catch in the game-winning drive at UAB, missed four games; Tech went 1-3 during that stretch.
Senior left tackle Joshua Outlaw missed two games with a swollen ankle; due to injuries, it wasn’t until Games 10 and 11 that Tech was able to start the same five offensive linemen at the same spots on consecutive weeks.
Corner L’Jarius Sneed missed UAB and USM, a one-point loss and a double-OT loss.
Receiver Javonte Woodard missed six games with a separated shoulder.
Five players on the two-deep depth chart missed the opening game. Six missed the second. By the time the Rice game rolled around in late October, 18 on the two-deep depth chart — that’s of the top 44 players on offense and defense — were either unavailable or very limited.
That was the high-water mark before the numbers began going back down. In the inaugural DXL Frisco Bowl, the Bulldogs will be as healthy as they’ve been since the week before the start of the season.
Several players went out early with season-ending injuries: redshirt freshman defensive back Reggie Cleveland, a star on special teams in the season opener; junior transfer corner Michael Sam, who played the season’s first two games; and sophomore receiver Alfred Smith, a starter last year.
So, every team in college athletics has injuries. The Bulldogs enjoyed less than their share last season and suffered through more than their share this season. Because of it, the Bulldogs could generate little flow. Imagine going to work each day with a different group of people. Especially, imagine if you’re Smith, the sophomore quarterback: you have different people blocking up front each game and different guys to throw to.
“The most frustrating thing was the rotation of personnel,” Holtz said. “A guy like Woodard misses six games. Adrian Hardy misses four. They just missed the opportunity to grow and develop. You go into a season saying this guy or that guy’s going to be pretty good, but because of the injuries they’ve not been able to develop. Because of that, because you have different lineups all the time, we weren’t able to have the development we wanted to have in the second half of the season. These are guys who missed games, but they missed the time at practice too, when they could have been improving, developing.
“And still,” Holtz said, “this team is four plays away from winning 10.”
Against Western Kentucky, back when the season was young and the ’Dogs were about to be 2-1 and 1-0 in C-USA, Tech made all the plays down the stretch. They showed they could do it. And then…then things got a bit wacky.
If Tech had held on the next week at Carolina, would things have gone differently?
Who knows? The only certainty is that Tech won its final two games to earn the most favorable bowl position it could hope for.
A victory against high-scoring SMU would definitely be just what the doctor — who’s been busy this year at Tech — ordered. With that, we close by going back to Pat Forde and The Dash.
“Dash Pick: Louisiana Tech 38, SMU 37,” Forde wrote. “Tech has lost three games by a single point this season, which is cruel and unusual. About time for the Bulldogs to win one by a point.”
For anyone who’s watched the Bulldogs in every game this season, anything less than that would be surprising.
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