RUSTON – On a day that saw Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson combine for only seven catches for 36 yards, Louisiana Tech showed it’s not just a two-man show.
The Bulldogs (8-3, 6-1 C-USA) scored early and often, built a big halftime lead, overcame some mistakes in the fourth quarter and cruised to their seventh straight win, a 63-35 victory over UTSA before 23,012 fans at Joe Aillet Stadium Saturday.
With the victory, Tech clinched a spot in the Conference USA championship game as the West Division champions. With a victory in its regular season finale Nov. 15 at Southern Miss, the Bulldogs would host the championship game at Independence Stadium in Shreveport.
“It feels good,” said Henderson. “It feels really good to go out there and execute it the way we did knowing it was a big game for us, knowing what was at stake, knowing what was on the line, and to win in the fashion we did. It feels good, real good.”
Ryan Higgins threw four more touchdowns — bringing his season total to 34 — including deep balls for scores to Alfred Smith for 68 yards and Marlon Watts for 50 yards and the LA Tech defense held UTSA to 310 yards. The Roadrunners (5-5, 4-3 C-USA) entered the contest having won four of their last five games.
“I’m really proud of the team,” said Bulldog head coach Skip Holtz. “It was not a very clean game. We made a million mistakes. We had a big punt return we gave up. We had a field goal block that went all the way back down. We made some mistakes. It certainly wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t pretty. But we were able to get it done.
“Our defense helped them to about 300 yards of total offense, and really, 300 yards and 35 points tells you some of the poor field position that they were put in a couple of times tonight. But like I said, I’m just really proud of this team, really proud of the way that they went out there and the way the competed.”
Smith caught three passes for a career-high 126 yards while Watts added two catches for 65 yards. Taylor and Henderson entered the contest ranked No. 1 and 4 in the nation in receiving yards but the Roadrunners defensive game-plan was to take them away.
UTSA won the battle but lost the war.
“Yeah, it happened a little bit last week,” said Holtz. “And you’re starting to see it more and more. They’re doing it; people are doubling Trent and they’re doubling Carlos. That takes four. That takes four of them out, and then the other two guys are in coverage zero. So there’s no safety over the top and there’s no help. Ryan’s doing a nice job and not trying to force it to where they’re two on one, and he’s taking what the defense is giving, and some of these other guys are stepping up. And like you said, Marlon Watts joined the party and it was really nice to see Alfred Smith take that deep ball to the house.”
Even with the double team, Henderson and Taylor still had an impact on the game. The duo combined to touch the football 10 times – and found pay-dirt on four of those.
Henderson opened the game in Henderson-like fashion, returning the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and giving the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead. UTSA responded on its first offensive possession, driving 87 yards on 13 plays and tying the game on a 1-yard run by Jarveon Williams.
It was the last time the Roadrunners would be that close. The Bulldogs would score touchdowns on four straight possessions over the first and second quarters to grab a 35-14 halftime lead. Former Haughton star Jarred Craft scored on a 1-yard run, Henderson followed with a six-yard reception from Higgins and the Smith struck with his 68-yard bomb down the Tech sideline. Henderson would add a 14-yard run on a reverse as Tech led 35-7 late in the second quarter.
While the Bulldog offense was clicking, the defense was setting up shop in the UTSA backfield, registering five total sacks on the night – giving Tech 26 in the last five games. Jaylon Ferguson totaled two of the sacks, giving him 12 for the year – just two shy of the LA Tech single season record of 14 set by Walter Johnson in 1986.
The Bulldogs held the Roadrunners to three straight 3-and-outs after the opening TD drive, giving the Tech O an opportunity to push the lead to four scores.
The lone touchdown of the third quarter came on a 5-yard pass from Higgins to Taylor, capping a 7-play, 67-yard drive early in the fame. However, the fourth quarter was filled with fireworks with each team scoring three TDs.
After UTSA scored early in the fourth to cut the margin to 42-21, Tech answered on a 50-yard bomb to Watts. Tech then appeared ready to add three points on its next possession, but Barnes’ 44-yard field goal was blocked and returned for a score by UTSA to cut the deficit to 49-28. After a 3-and-out by Tech, UTSA hit paydirt again, on a 4-yard pass to make the score 49-35 with 3:32 to play.
On the ensuing onside kick, Craft scooped up the football and returned it 45 yards for a score, the Bulldogs second kickoff return for a TD in the game. Following the TD, Trent Taylor converted the extra point.
“What happened, this week Trent was out during pre-practice and kicking, and he made it,” said Holtz. “And I said, ‘yeah, well, there’s no line in front of you.’ He said, ‘Coach, you call me whenever you need me.’ So we went to field goal that day, and I said, you know what, I’m going to be a smart aleck, and I said, ‘all right, Trent, let’s go.’ And he ran out there, he took his steps, he put it right through the middle of the uprights, and I was like, you know what, if we get an opportunity to kick an extra point and the game’s in hand, I’ll give you a chance to kick it. And he said, ‘that’s all I want is a chance.’ But he’s a great athlete. These guys have fun.”
The Bulldogs ended the scoring on a 1-yard run by J’Mar Smith for the final points of the night.
The win was the Bulldogs fifth straight victory by 20 or more points, a program record.
— Louisiana Tech Sports Information … Feature Photo/LATech, SportsPix.com