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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 74: Louisiana Tech

One thing Louisiana Tech is not known for is defense: only two of its teams since 1994 have allowed less than 300 points in a season, which means that the Bulldogs, somewhat under the radar, have been one of the worst defensive teams in the country for a generation. So what do you give a defense that can’t get stops? You nab an offensively gifted coach like Sonny Dykes, give him a top lieutenant in Tony Franklin and get rolling with the Air Raid, hoping that offensive potency offsets defensive liabilities. Hey, it worked for Gary Crowton from 1996-98. And it will work for Dykes, though I can’t help but wonder: Once the WAC disbands, where go the Bulldogs?

Conference
WAC

Location
Ruston, La.

Nickname
Bulldogs

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 104

2010 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 80

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Southern Miss.
  • Sept. 10
    Central Arkansas
  • Sept. 17
    Houston
  • Sept. 24
    at Mississippi St.
  • Oct. 1
    Hawaii
  • Oct. 8
    at Idaho
  • Oct. 22
    at Utah St.
  • Oct. 29
    San Jose St.
  • Nov. 5
    at Fresno St.
  • Nov. 12
    at Mississippi
  • Nov. 19
    at Nevada
  • Nov. 26
    New Mexico St.

Last year’s prediction

Really, with such a wholesale change in coaching philosophy, slight growing pains are to be expected. Not to say there are not things to like about the Bulldogs: the offensive line is solid, the offense as a whole will at least have flashes of explosiveness, and the back seven of the defense is not terrible; the linebacker corps is in the top half of the WAC. Still, I predict Louisiana Tech to finish in the bottom third of the conference in 2010, ahead of New Mexico State and San Jose State and slightly behind Utah State. The top half of the WAC is strong, and ahead of the Bulldogs in terms of their development. In good news, thanks to Dooley’s foundation, Dykes could have this team turned around in a single season.

2010 recap

In a nutshell It took some time for the offense to come together, as expected. The offense is still coming together, with that process not one that will occur overnight. But we saw in-season development last fall from the Air Raid, run by Dykes to great effect at Texas Tech and Arizona prior to his arrival in Ruston. The Bulldogs dropped four straight after a season-opening win over Grambling State, throwing the ball adequately but struggling to create any offensive balance. Tech struggled to score points in general, perhaps due to this unbalance, averaging 18.4 points per game in its 1-4 start. Then something seemed to click: the running game took off, averaging 217.1 yards per game over Tech’s last seven and taking some pressure off the passing game. Not surprisingly, the Bulldogs finished 4-3, losing only to three of the best teams in the WAC. There’s still plenty of work to be done, however, both offensively and defensively. The Bulldogs finished the year ranked 117th nationally in total defense and 90th in scoring, so it’s not just the offense that’s a work in progress.

High point The 4-3 run to end the year. No, the wins weren’t overly impressive: Utah State, Idaho, New Mexico State and San Jose State combined to lose 37 games on the year. But that Louisiana Tech began winning games at all was a great sign, and that it happened over the second half of the year gives this program some confidence heading into 2011.

Low point The slow start put the Bulldogs into a hole they couldn’t climb out of, try as they might. The Bulldogs couldn’t beat any good teams, with each of the seven losses coming to an eventual bowl participant. The most painful loss on the year? Try a 13-12 defeat to Southern Mississippi: with this Air Raid attack, you’re not supposed to lose when your defense allows only 13 points.

Tidbit Louisiana Tech will play every game on a Saturday this fall, a program-first since 2007. It’s also only the second time the Bulldogs have done so since 2002. That 2007 squad went 5-7, by the way, though that means nothing.

Tidbit (scoring edition) One reason why Dykes might just be successful? Try Louisiana Tech’s history of poor play when struggling to score points: the Bulldogs are 4-54 since 1998 when scoring 20 points or less, which speaks volumes to the offensive malaise this program entered once Tim Rattay and Troy Edwards left for the N.F.L. in 1999. Things are looking up under this new offense. The Bulldogs scored at least 21 points eight times in 2010, and that total will improve this season.

Tidbit (story time edition) I grew up around bulldogs. I love bulldogs. Some of my best friends are bulldogs, in fact. So the tale of how Louisiana Tech chose the bulldog as its mascot seems to cause dust and other particulates to rise in the air, somehow or another. Prepare your handkerchiefs. As taken from the Louisiana Tech official Web site:

The legend of the Louisiana Tech Bulldog dates back to the fall of 1899. The story involves five Tech students on their way home from class. When they reached the edge of campus, they noticed a quiet old bulldog sitting alone under a tree. Assuming the dog was a stray, they fed him all the food they had with them and continued on their way.

When the young men had reached the boarding house where they were living, one of them discovered that the bulldog had followed them. They all liked the bulldog and decided not to send him away. They received permission from the owner of the house to keep the dog and to let him sleep in the kitchen for the night. However, they would have to make other plans the next day.

During the night, a fire broke out in the house and the bulldog was the first to be awakened. The old dog became alarmed and ran from room to room tugging at the sheets of the bed to wake the students and the owner. Once the owner and the students had assembled outside, they were horrified to discover that one boy was still in the house. By this time, the house was almost completely full of smoke. Before the boys had time to react, they saw the bulldog run back into the burning house. Moments later, the final student ran out to safety. They all waited for the bulldog to come back out, but it never did.

By dawn the fire was out and the boys searched what remained of the house in hopes of finding the old bulldog alive. After a short time, they found the old dog lying in an unburned corner of the house. The smoke and heat had been too much, and the heroic dog just did not make it.

With tears in their eyes, the young men picked up the lifeless body, and without saying a word, began to walk back to the campus. When they reached the tree where they had met the bulldog only the day before, they began to dig a grave. Not wanting the bulldog to lie uncovered, two of the students took off their jackets and wrapped the bulldog. One jacket was red, the other blue.

That’s a bulldog.

Tidbit (Mississippi edition) There are three F.B.S. programs in the state of Mississippi. I don’t need to name them. In 2011, Tech plays each of the three in the same season for the first time, though there have been years when the Bulldogs have played two of the three. In 1938, Tech played both Mississippi State and Mississippi. Tech played the Rebels and Southern Mississippi in 1946, 1984 and 1992. Tech faced the other Bulldogs and the Golden Eagles in 1968, 1980 and 1988. The Bulldogs swept M.S.U. and the Eagles in 1968 and split games between the Rebels and Eagles in 1946, beating Ole Miss. The rest of the samples didn’t go Tech’s way: losses to M.S.U. and Ole Miss in 1938; Ole Miss and U.S.M. in 1984 and 1992; and M.S.U. and U.S.M. in 1980 and 1988.

Former players in the N.F.L.

7 S Antonio Baker (Houston), S Hiram Eugene (Oakland), QB Luke McCown (Jacksonville), TE Dennis Morris (San Diego), K Josh Scobee (Jacksonville), DT D’Anthony Smith (Jacksonville), CB Tramon Williams (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

N.F.L. quarterbacks from Louisiana who stayed in state
1. Terry Bradshaw, Louisiana Tech.
2. Jake Delhomme, Louisiana-Lafayette.
3. Stan Humphries, L.S.U. and Louisiana-Monroe.
4. Bobby Hebert, Northwestern State.
5. Bubby Brister, Tulane and Louisiana-Monroe.

Coaching

Sonny Dykes (Texas Tech ’90), 5-7 after a single season with the Bulldogs. The spread offense specialist was tabbed for his first head coach opportunity after a half-decade as a B.C.S. conference offensive coordinator, first at his alma mater before spending 2007-9 at Arizona. The majority of his assistant experience has come at Texas Tech, where he was first hired as the receivers coach in 2000 after a single season at Kentucky. Dykes served as in that capacity for five years before being named co-offensive coordinator for the 2005 and 2006 seasons. While then-Texas Tech coach Mike Leach remained an important figure when it came to philosophy and in-game play calling, Dykes remained responsible for a large portion of the offensive game planning while continuing to coach the Tech receivers. Of course, his experience under Leach helped form his offensive mindset, both in terms of his spread philosophy and the tempo with which his offense gets into and out of the huddle, preventing the opposition from rapidly alternating its personnel to match the offensive alignment. It was at Arizona that Dykes was given his first opportunity to run an offense on his own, as well as his first shot as a quarterbacks coach. His three-year stint with the Wildcats was a successful one: his first protege, Willie Tuitama, set numerous program records, and his offense continued to flourish with a new quarterback under center in 2009, when Arizona came a game within landing its first Rose Bowl birth in program history. Despite this success — and Tech’s consistent play from 2000-6 — Dykes remains somewhat unknown on the coaching ranks; he was overshadowed at Texas Tech by Mike Leach and at Arizona by both Mike and, to a lesser degree, Mark Stoops. Yet he has a very solid reputation, both as a coordinator and a recruiter. He’s going to do well in Ruston.

Players to watch

It’s great when a transfer works out, isn’t it? They so rarely do, it seems, which made Lennon Creer’s late race to 1,000 yards such a delight — not just for Creer but also the Bulldogs, who turned the corner offensively once Creer got on track. He cracked the 100-yard mark in five of his last seven games, including a 252-yard showing against San Jose State, to finish with 1,181 yards and 10 scores; Creer added another 25 grabs through the air, third on the team. Hey, there’s a reason he went to Tennessee out of high school: Creer can play, simply put, and with Boise State’s move to the Mountain West he becomes the best back in the WAC. And as strange as it may sound to say, given the nature of this pass-first system, Creer is Tech’s offensive centerpiece. His backup is former JUCO transfer Ray Holley (208 yards, 2 scores).

Sometimes a transfer just doesn’t work out at all. Case in point: SEC transfers Ahmad Paige and Tim Molton, who arrived with great fanfare but never produced. After another violation of team rules, the pair was dismissed in late May. So that leaves Tech without much star power at receiver; legendary return man Phillip Livas is also gone, though he never captured the same sort of breakaway ability that he flashed on special teams. Last year’s three leading receivers do return, however. Senior Taulib Ikharo (50 receptions for 530 yards) and junior Richie Casey (42 for 432) lead the way, as they did a year ago. Junior Lyle Fitte might not start, but he’ll see plenty of action in Tech’s multiple-receiver sets.

Then there are a few new additions, like JUCO transfers Quinton Patton and Myles White — the latter began his career at Michigan State. But so much more is needed from the top pair and their reserves. Surprisingly enough, the quest for offensive balance finds Tech looking for a passing game; one would think it would be otherwise, with the running game trailing behind. But that’s not the case, both due to Creer’s immediate impact and a group of quarterbacks — which I’ll touch on below — who failed to grasp the new system from the start.

The line lost three multiple-year starters, headlined by first-team all-WAC left tackle Rob McGill. The Bulldogs must also replace an extremely valuable reserve in backup center Lon Roberts, who started for three straight years before losing his role to Stephen Warner prior to last season. Warner’s back, which is great, as is left guard Kevin Saia. The rest of the line is still shaking into shape, but Tech’s JUCO transfers loom large in the transition to a new starting cast. One, Larry Banks, is right alongside senior Kris Cavitt at left tackle. Another, Oscar Johnson, is neck-and-neck with Vince Cano at right guard. Jordan Mills has right tackle locked down; he made four starts there a year ago, five at left tackle in 2009. Say what you will about the losses: they’re big, no doubt about it. But those losses will be offset by the added year of experience in this system, which will find Tech faring better up front.

Let’s talk about the defensive line: Would you rather be stronger inside, weaker out? Or strong outside, weaker in? The latter provides a strong pass rush at the expense of the run defense; the former vice versa. Tech is facing this conundrum as we look towards 2011, as the Bulldogs are in fine shape at end but questionable inside, thanks to the departure of all-WAC tackle Mason Hitt.

At least there’s senior end Matt Broha (44 tackles, 9 sacks). He’s perhaps the WAC’s best lineman, inside or out; if he makes a similar jump this fall that he made from 2009-10, Broha might be one of the best defensive ends outside a B.C.S. conference. He might be joined by sophomore IK Enemkpali (36 tackles, 6.5 for loss), who started 10 games last fall but has been suspended from the team for a humdinger of an off-field misstep. If he’s back, Tech’s starting end pairing is as good as it gets in the WAC. If he’s not, Broha goes it alone — Tech will be fine, but would need a youngster like Kendrick James or Andre Taylor to step up. Senior Christian Lacey has played plenty over the last three years, but he’s riding behind that pair on the depth chart.

The Bulldogs hope JUCO addition Jon’al White is ready to go from the start. If he is, that would take a major weight off the shoulders of several younger linemen probably not ready to fill Hitt’s shoes. White’s main competition for a starting role is senior Adam Hymel, who has played as a reserve but is too small to provide adequate run support. But he can be a valuable option in certain defensive packages. Sophomores Justin Ellis and Shakeil Lucas round out the tackle depth. It’s not a very good group: it’s a very unproven group, that’s for sure.

All the key faces return at linebacker, making this the unquestioned strength of the defense. One slight change: Tech will probably go with more three-linebacker sets in 2011, compared to more five-defensive back sets, so the Bulldogs need to find a third starter. That’s going to be senior strong side linebacker Dusty Rust (49 tackles), who started five games a year ago. The rest of the group has already fallen into place. Seniors Adrien Cole (80 tackles, 2 sacks) and Jay Dudley (team-best 94 tackles) earned all-conference honors in the middle and the weak side, respectively, a year ago. That’s a pretty good pairing. There’s depth behind this pair, including another pair of JUCO transfers, so the position looks very good.

Maybe a strong pass rush can help a pass defense that took a major step back last fall, dropping from 40th nationally in yards allowed per game in 2009 to 117th a year ago. Such a drastic move back into the upper echelon of the F.B.S. may be too much to ask, but there’s no doubt that the Bulldogs can button up this pass defense at least a bit with three returning starters in the fold. One is senior strong safety Chad Boyd, who finished second on the team in tackles (90) while leading the way with four picks. He’s the leader of the secondary.

Then there are a few experienced cornerbacks, like senior Ryan Williams — in Ruston via Auburn via the junior college ranks. There’s senior Terry Carter, who started in 2008 and 2009 but fell back to a backup role last fall. Junior Dave Clark has talent, as does senior DeMarcion Evans, though neither have done much for the Bulldogs. It’s more about quantity than pure quality, at least at this point. One overlooked loss: nickel back Tank Calais was a key part of last year’s defense. Junior Javontay Crowe is back at free safety, as is fellow junior Jamel Johnson.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback If there’s one thing last season taught the Tech quarterbacks, it’s this: don’t get comfortable. And try your best not to miss a single snap — if you can walk, hit the practice field. Steven Ensminger, since graduated, was named the starter last August but missed a week or so during fall camp due to injury. Not only did Ensminger lose his starting job while sidelined; he didn’t attempt a single pass all season, bypassed with great speed by three quarterbacks — and even four skill players, if we go merely by attempts. So note to junior Colby Cameron: sharpen your fingernails and dig into that depth chart, build a foxhole, set up shop and don’t let go. It’s probably going to be Cameron serving as Ross Jenkins’ replacement, stepping in for the multiple-year starter who might not have the best quarterback in the country, merely the best quarterback in Ruston. Cameron started three games a year ago but scuffled, completing less than 60 percent of his attempts — a low total for this offense — with five interceptions against a single touchdown. The Bulldogs also bring back junior Tarik Hakmi, a former JUCO transfer who started in Tech’s narrow loss to Southern Mississippi. In addition, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Taylor Burch, Dykes’s lone high school addition at the position since arriving on campus, as well as JUCO transfer Zach Griffith. There are options, though Cameron was running with the first offense through most of the spring and, by all accounts, has improved. Still, he needs to get better and fast in order to remain atop the depth chart, as last season did show that Dykes is not afraid of making changes under center.

Game(s) to watch

The schedule is as tough as you’ll find at a non-B.C.S. conference stop. As of today, going better than 1-3 outside of the WAC is going to be difficult: maybe the Bulldogs can win in Hattiesburg, but that’s not an easy trip. Things are far, far better in the WAC, though the Bulldogs would far rather get conference favorites Nevada and Fresno State at home, not away.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room. Make that elephants, actually: the schedule looms large above all, but that’s the one thing out of Louisiana Tech’s control. What the Bulldogs really need is a passing game to match a strong running game, as strange as that may sound. Defensively, the Bulldogs need to locate three stout interior linemen to beef up the run defense. I do think the secondary will be improved, both because of the added experience along the back end of the defense and thanks to a pretty good pass rush. But the defense isn’t good, from top to bottom, so the Bulldogs will need to score points. Will they? Yeah, Tech’s going to score points. Forget about the new quarterback, the few new linemen, the new receivers: this offense will be better just because of last year’s experience running this spread attack. That’s very good news for the Bulldogs. Now, what’s the ceiling for wins? This schedule is not going to allow Tech to win eight games; the non-conference schedule is nasty, and the Bulldogs have the poor fortune to get two of the WAC’s best, Nevada and Fresno State, on the road. But the baseline for success is six wins, and the team is definitely good enough to get there. What about seven? It’s definitely doable. But eight? That’ll take an upset. Either way, Tech’s heading back to bowl play.

Dream season The passing game clicks, helping make the Louisiana Tech offense the WAC’s best. That means nine wins and a solid bowl berth.

Nightmare season The passing game struggles, the defense can’t get stops and the schedule is intimidating. That spells nine losses, which would not be good.

In case you were wondering

Where do Louisiana Tech fans congregate? Just go to Bulldog Barks & Bytes and stay there, as it doesn’t get any better for Louisiana Tech fans. Bleed Tech Blue has significantly less chatter, though the site does give in-depth coverage of Louisiana Tech recruiting.

Word Count

Through 47 teams 133,404.

Up Next

Who is No. 73? Tomorrow’s university produced two of the 12 presidents representing schools in the Pac-12.

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Comments

  1. Charlie says:

    BYU?

  2. Cole says:

    I’ve seen the bulldog story before, and as a bulldog owner and lover, I have to say it makes me tear up. Such a fantastic breed of dog.

  3. Eksynyt says:

    Robert Shelton, president of the University of Arizona and Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University both graduated from the same Alma Mater…the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    Can’t believe UNC is going to be this low.

  4. Charlie says:

    @Eksynyt: Shelton was the provost at UNC. He graduated from Stanford.

    This is a tough one: Wiki wasn’t giving me much. I guessed BYU purely on the spot in the rankings, but it could also be Syracuse (although both would seem quite low to me.)

  5. Clayton says:

    This really is a tough one. I looked it up and only 2 schools stuck out, Syracuse and Stanford. Obviously, it isn’t Stanford so I would guess its Syracuse.

  6. jjtiller says:

    Once the WAC disbands, where go the Bulldogs?
    —-
    WAC commissioner Karl Benson: “Louisiana Tech has been very clear that they are committed to the WAC. If Conference USA calls Louisiana Tech then it’s a different story.”

  7. philip says:

    nice to see a mascot back story that isn’t just folklore or the result of some naming contest. great tearjerking tidbit.

    we’re almost to the two-month mark. thanks for keeping the off-season interesting — and not in an off-field scandal kind of way.

    (though the one that emanated from morgantown, w.va., could make things interesting here, no?)

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