How Next Year Turned Into This Year
A look back at the 2011 season
Nov. 29, 2011
By: Teddy Allen
Since the ball is shaped funny and some of the players are teenagers and few things except gravity are exact science anyway, odd things will happen now and then in college football.
Take the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs of 2011. They are playing like the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs of 2012, the team that's not even a team yet. But when they get to be a team, with key players returning with a year's more experience and with a schedule that doesn't feature games against All Three Big Mississippi Schools away, plus three of the final four games on the road, they're supposed to be sort of good.
"I wouldn't want to play us," said their coach, who is Sonny Dykes and who also coaches - what are the odds? - the '11 team! In just his second year in Ruston, with a brutally front-loaded and back-loaded schedule and only 18 months of recruiting under his belt, Dykes and his charges waltzed into September with a resume few feared.
Just four starters back on each side of the ball;
Picked to finish fourth in the Western Athletic Conference - and that's with Boise State now in the Mountain West - and picked 90-something in the nation;
That road schedule;
A severe lack of experience at quarterback, something that can cause problems on a pass-happy offense, sort of like a wet fuse can cause problems on a stick of dynamite.
In other words, the Bulldogs did not appear to be the FBS answer to the Green Bay Packers.
But you know, it was just the weirdest thing...
To start with, there was that Strange September. Once the dust cleared and you could see what had actually happened, any reasonable person would declare Tech could have been 4-0. Or 0-4.
What the Bulldogs were was 1-3.
In the opener, Tech nearly upset Southern Miss, a 12-point favorite, in Hattiesburg. Lost in a tropical storm, 19-17.
Then an overtime win at home against FCS opponent Central Arkansas, a 48-42 shootout. Whew.
Then a 35-34 loss to 7-point favorite Houston at home - Tech had led 34-7 - and a 26-20 loss, again in overtime, in Starkville to Mississippi State, an 18.5-point favorite.
Chew on all that a second. Southern Miss and Houston, likely BCS-bowl bound, would both be ranked in the Top 20 by November, and Tech lost to both by a total of three points. And to the SEC's State in OT.
Strange. Tech played brilliantly in all three at times, only to shoot itself in the cleat with late turnovers in scoring position in all three.
But then the WAC season opened. At home! And Tech was favored! -- and lost, 44-26, laying an egg as big as four footballs. Maybe it was in part due to the emotional toll of an unforgiving September and three losses by a total of nine points. Whatever, the Bulldogs fell hard to a feast-or-famine Hawai'i team that would eventually limp into late November at 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the WAC.
This was not particularly encouraging, seeing as how Tech's record was now 1-4, with five of the next six games on the road.
So of course, Tech rattled off seven wins in a row, spoiling two homecomings and winning their own (in Joe Aillet Stadium against San Jose State.)
More importantly, Tech won the Western Athletic Conference title, outright, the Bulldogs first WAC championship since 2001. From 1-4 quicksand to 8-4 and the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
Not a bad two months' work. Seven straight wins. First time Tech had done that since 1973-74.
All this despite plane trips and injured knees and the emotional baggage of three tight September losses. In a special twist, the Bulldogs became bowl eligible in a Southeastern Conference stadium, whipping Ole Miss like a tied-up goat, 27-7 (and it could have been worse) in Oxford.
Two of the seven were in serious fourth-quarter doubt, the first at Utah State. True freshman quarterback Nick Isham hit the bench late with a bruised shoulder and junior Colby Cameron came on to help guide Tech to 10 fourth-quarter points while the defense, devoted to the cause all afternoon, made a key stop late.
Much more antsy was the contest in Reno, where Nevada, 5-0 in the WAC at the time, held a 20-3 fourth-quarter lead and all the cards. Tech's offense had gained roughly the length of your arm all afternoon before turning into football's version of the Harlem Globetrotters - with 21 points in the finals 10 minutes. Oh, it was a deal, all right, and nothing about it was easy. Cameron passed for 237 yards in the fourth as Tech strung together touchdown drives of 84, 89 and 92 yards and took a 24-20 lead with 1:42 left.
It ended that way, with Bulldogs pouring onto the field and both the clock and Nevada's chances expiring as Tech senior linebacker Adrien Cole sacked the Wolfpack QB to end the improbable comeback and set Tech up for one more regular season test.
The Bulldogs passed. Tech 44, New Mexico State 0. On a rainy November night in Aillet Stadium, the Bulldogs blanked the Aggies and accepted a trip to sunny San Diego for the Dec. 21 bowl.
In retrospect, the winning streak started when the turnovers stopped. When the turnover situation turned around, so did Tech's season. Tech climbed from 1-4 to 8-4 by playing three turnover-free games. Tech returned five INTs and an opponent's fumble for touchdowns during the stretch.
And there were other factors too. Like the punting of Ryan Allen, a Ray Guy Award finalist who consistently flipped the field with his knack for getting the ball in position to be downed within the 20 yard line, something he was best in the nation in doing through 12 games (37 of 78 times.)
Or like the defense, which allowed no rusher 100 yards in 10 of Tech's 12 games and which was one of the nation's best in making offenses earn their way: Tech ranked 12th in the nation in third-down efficiency and, of the nation's top 20 teams in third-down efficiency, first in third downs defended with 197.
There was the offensive line, a quintet that seldom rested. The dependable and deep defensive line that was a major cause of Tech's WAC-high 20 interceptions, ranking a mere third in the nation.
And somewhere in here was a team toughness and road-warrior mentality that solidified even as the Bulldogs lost a safety, fullback, kick returner and punt returner to season-ending injuries. At Oxford, Tech at one point had in its offensive backfield three players, and only one of them was on scholarship. By mid-October, Tech had found the confidence and ability to throw the ball downfield: half of its passes of 20 yards or more through nine games - 19 of 38 - came in the final five games of its seven-game win streak. The Bulldogs were 10-1 against the spread, 2-0 against homecoming road crowds and, at Fresno State and Ole Miss, emptied out stadiums by early in the fourth quarter.
A team that most people figured to win six games at the most - present company included - has left fans scratching their heads for all sorts of reasons. It's been a team that's been sometimes frustrating to watch but that's been mostly fun to watch, and easy to root for. They seem to pull for each other and to play for each other.
And it's not over yet.