One of the silver linings to the turbulence of a COVID season has been the scheduling on the fly; though certainly not enjoyable for athletic departments and coaches, it’s been a ton of fun for fans. Whether it’s a surprise classic like BYU at Coastal Carolina or the surprise addition of a tenth game — and finally a home game under the lights — for the Horned Frogs, seeing programs find a way to keep playing is certainly a bonus for fans of college football.
To learn more about the Bulldogs, we reached out to our friends at Underdog Dynasty, the premier source for covering the Conference USA, the Sun Belt, and FCS programs at SB Nation. Steve Helwick was kind enough to answer some questions for us and help us get to know La Tech a little better before Saturday night.
Frogs O’ War: The Louisiana Tech game was a last minute addition to the schedule, so I am going to guess that not many TCU fans know much about the team/program. What’s your basic assessment of what we will see from the Bulldogs in Fort Worth Saturday night?
Steve Helwick: In a deranged college football season like 2020, one of the most thrilling occurrences is when two teams arrange an impromptu non-conference game. After TCU-SMU and Louisiana Tech-Baylor were both canceled in September, I’m glad these programs converged to schedule a late-season matchup, especially with an increasing amount of bowl games facing cancellations.
While 2020 is a year of the unprecedented, this Louisiana Tech team is essentially putting up its annual results in the Skip Holtz era — which involves winning roughly between 60 and 70 percent of games. At 5-3 overall and 4-2 in conference play, the Bulldogs remain viable contenders in the C-USA West.
To have a sense of the team’s résumé, Louisiana Tech’s strongest victory this year is a double overtime triumph over UAB. Notable losses include falling to a ranked BYU team by 31 and the C-USA’s frontrunner, Marshall, by 18. But with the uncertainty of bowl season and a hazy conference championship race, this is the Bulldogs’ final scheduled game of 2020. Holtz is 6-0 in bowl games with Louisiana Tech, most notably shutting out Miami (FL) in the 2019 Independence Bowl.
Thus, expect Louisiana Tech to treat this like a bowl. Holtz usually saves his best for the end of the season and often attacks high-profile games with extraordinary game-planning, so his players will certainly enter the field energized and ready to execute Saturday.
FOW: That’s a great breakdown — can you give us a few specific names to know on both sides of the ball?
SH: Offensively, Louisiana Tech has consistently utilized a 2-quarterback system throughout the entire season. Luke Anthony, the senior grad transfer, has started every game this year and often receives the majority of snaps. However, sophomore Aaron Allen has taken several passing reps in all eight outings this year and was instrumental in guiding Louisiana Tech to a 37-34 upset victory over UAB. Expect somewhat of a rotation between quarterbacks with the Bulldogs eventually settling on the hot hand in Saturday’s game. Both quarterbacks are primarily pocket passers who thrive with short corner and crossing routes. Louisiana Tech doesn’t create explosive plays often, but the Bulldogs’ offense can be a death-by-papercuts unit. Last week, they chipped away at North Texas with seven methodical touchdown drives of 7+ plays.
Other names to note include running back Israel Tucker, who dominated the North Texas defense with 161 rushing yards and two touchdowns last Thursday. He fulfilled the starting running back role when Justin Henderson opted out of the season, and he’ll be instrumental in boosting a rushing attack that currently ranks in the bottom 10 of the FBS.
Defensively, No. 97 on the defensive line should be the focus for TCU in the trenches. Milton Williams is a 6’4” defensive end from Crowley, TX — about a 20 minute drive south of Fort Worth. He leads the Bulldogs with 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss this year and has been disruptive in the run game, ranking fifth on the team in tackles. Williams will be the primary defender tasked with limiting Max Duggan on zone reads, hoping to prevent another performance like the one Duggan had against Oklahoma State.
FOW: How has COVID impacted the Bulldogs’ season?
SH: No conference has been impacted by COVID-19 cancellations and postponements harder than the C-USA. Just two weeks ago, one out of six scheduled C-USA games actually transpired. Last Thursday, Louisiana Tech played its first game since Oct. 31, upending North Texas, 42-31. The Bulldogs missed four consecutive games in November and finally ended their hiatus Dec. 3. The game against Rice on Nov. 14 was the only one of the four axed due to COVID issues within the Louisiana Tech program.
FOW: There is one player that has played for both programs — La Tech WR Isaiah Graham. According to the stats, three of his 14 receptions have gone for touchdowns, which seems pretty good! How has the former Frog played since leaving TCU? What do you expect from him Saturday? (I know he has missed some time this season, so if he’s hurt or something just answer the first part of the question)
SH: Expect an increase in Isaiah Graham’s production this game because the team’s No. 1 wideout Adrian Hardy opted out of the season. In the prior game at North Texas, Graham started at the X-receiver position and tied for second on the team in receptions (3) and yards (27). Graham has been a solid component of the receiving corps since transferring, ranking second on the team in touchdown receptions and fifth in yards in 2019. This year, he checks in at third on the team in receiving touchdowns and is frequently targeted in the red zone. A road trip back to his former home base will be a great opportunity to manufacture his first 100-yard game and a memorable career sendoff performance, if he chooses to forgo the extra year of eligibility granted to all players in 2020.
FOW: Is there any place you see La Tech having an advantage over TCU on game day? Who will have stepped up if they pull off a win?
SH: If there’s an advantage, it’s in the passing game. TCU’s aerial attack hasn’t been much to marvel at since Kenny Hill suited up, and the Horned Frogs’ game results in 2020 seem more contingent on what Duggan does with his legs than through the air. Louisiana Tech’s quarterbacks combine to throw double the amount of touchdown passes that TCU’s signal callers have fired this season on just 25 more attempts. The Bulldogs also have a considerable edge in the quarterback accuracy department, but TCU’s secondary forces the 14th highest incompletion rate in the country — which may balance that comparison between the teams.
If Louisiana Tech pulls off the upset, I’d expect it to be the result of the defense shutting down Duggan in the run game and forcing the Horned Frogs to move the sticks through the air. Kansas State and West Virginia perfected that gameplan in low-scoring bouts, and if TCU comes out sluggish with turnovers and missed field goals like it did last week, the Bulldogs can capitalize to win in a classic rock fight.
FOW: La Tech seems to go for it a ton on fourth down, and have been incredibly successful (13-15). Are they a very aggressive team on offense or has it all been situational?
SH: Louisiana Tech has a strong affinity to go for fourth downs if the distance is 1 or 2 yards. Last week, the Bulldogs elected to go for a 4th and 1 from their own 41 in a tie game in the first half, so there is increased aggressiveness in such situations this year. The fourth down play calls aren’t usually high-risk and are often QB sneaks and halfback dives, which explains the 13/15 success rate.
Also, it’s worth noting that a lot of teams that gamble frequently on fourth down have questionable kicking games, but that is not the case with Jacob Barnes, who is a solid 10/11 this season.
FOW: What is your prediction for Saturday?
SH: TCU builds on the Oklahoma State victory and secures the win, 27-16. The Horned Frog defense hasn’t allowed 24 points in its past five games and I believe that trend continues at The Carter this Saturday. This matchup will play out similarly to Louisiana Tech’s loss to Marshall and TCU’s victory over Texas Tech, where the scoreboard is a happy medium between a blowout and a tightly-contested ballgame throughout its entirety. I expect turnovers to be prevalent for both teams and a lot of solid defensive playmaking in this one.
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