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Conference USA Championship Game: How LA Tech Got Here

With so many unknowns coming into the 2014 season, Louisiana Tech was an enigma. How would the team rebound from a 4-8 season where they lost their last three games by an average of more than three touchdowns? Who was going to play quarterback and how would the defense improve after giving up over 400 yards per game in 2013?

Skip Holtz has led LA Tech to a big turnaround.
Skip Holtz has led LA Tech to a big turnaround.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Louisiana Tech's 2014 schedule broke down into three parts - a daunting 5 game portion against 2013 bowl teams, 5 winnable games against Conference USA cellar dwellers, and two final games that would decide their season.

The first five-game stretch included four road games against bowl teams from the previous season. If Tech could find a way to come out of that death trap at 2-3, it would be considered a major success. Most fans were hopeful that Tech could improve to 6-6 or 7-5 this season as Skip Holtz continued to build his program.

Tech kicked off its season against Oklahoma, and was down 41-3 losing big to the then-number four team in the country. New quarterback Cody Sokol did show some promise in the 4th quarter, leading the team on two scoring drives that ended in his first two touchdown passes of the year.

If you had asked Bulldog fans about the next two games at UNT and at ULL, anybody would have been fine with a split. No one thought in a million years that the Bulldogs would blow both teams out. Tech jumped on ULL 31-7 after three quarters and handled UNT in the same fashion, building a 35-7 lead after three quarters, en route to blowout victories.

The Bulldogs forced three turnovers against ULL and they held UNT to just 279 yards of offense and two turnovers. Cody Sokol threw a combined seven touchdown passes in the two games and the defense proved that new Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz had changed the way they played the game.

Expectations are a funny thing and Louisiana Tech fans changed their expectations a few different times in 2014. Before the season, seven wins seemed like a reachable limit. After their first two wins, those expectations grew to nine or even ten wins.

The game against FCS Northwestern State caused expectation to temper just a bit. Louisiana Tech would indeed start the season 2-3, just not the way everyone thought. Tech was handing Northwestern State 20-10 after three quarters, but the Bulldogs turned the ball over three times (Tech had five total turnovers) late and the Demons came back and won 30-27.

Auburn beat Tech pretty handily, but the Bulldogs played well enough to gain back a little confidence.

The middle portion of the schedule was where most people thought Tech could get a few wins. While UTSA was the preseason favorite to win Conference USA's Western Division and both WKU and ODU had really good quarterbacks, the thought was the Bulldogs could at least pull off a few wins in a stretch that also included UTEP and Southern Miss.

The Bulldogs went out and defied expectations,winning the next five in a row behind a suffocating defense and a couple of huge blowouts. Tech blew out UTEP and WKU in Ruston by a combined 114-13. UTSA and USM proved to be tough on defense and gave the Bulldogs more of a battle. Tech only had 278 yards of offense against UTSA while USM limited the Bulldogs to just 30 yards rushing.

After a road win over UAB, Tech found themselves at 7-3, 6-0 and suddenly the nine win talk was back. ODU pulled a Northwestern State and crushed Tech's talk about going to a major bowl. Tech led the Monarchs 24-14 at the half, but the Bulldogs failed to score in the second half.

Expectations came back down and now the talk was "Can Tech even beat Rice to earn a trip to the CUSA Championship game?". This game wasn't even supposed to matter because the Bulldogs were supposed to clinch things a week earlier.

Louisiana Tech saved their best performance of the season for last as they blew the doors off of Rice, 76-31. The defending division champion Owls held on for a while, as they were down 28-24 early in the third quarter. Tech scored 41 straight points from there in rout to the 45 point victory.

The Bulldogs finished the season 8-4 and now face Marshall, a 11-1 Group of 5 powerhours that went 7-1 in each of their last two CUSA seasons. Tech is a two touchdown underdog, but I don't think they would want it any other way.

The one constant this season has been Kenneth Dixon, the one player everyone knew Coach Skip Holtz could count on coming into the season. Dixon finished with 1080 yards with a 4.9 yard per carry average and 18 rushing touchdowns. The junior running back added five more touchdowns receiving.

Sokol finished the season with over 3,000 yards passing and 29 touchdowns. His favorite target was Trent Taylor, who had 808 yards receiving and 9 touchdowns. Five other players had at least 300 yards receiving. One of those players, freshman Carlos Henderson, was second on the team with 472 yards receiving and he added another 645 yards in kick returns, including a 96 yard touchdown.

Safety Kentrell Brice led the team with 73 tackles while middle linebacker Tony Johnson added 69. Vernon Butler led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and his 46 total tackles were good for fifth on the team. Butler's numbers are even more impressive considering he plays defensive tackle and had to fight off double teams constantly.

Adarius Barnes and Xavier Woods each had five interceptions, as the Bulldogs had a total of 24 as a team - 2nd in the country to Louisville's 25. Defensive Ends Houston Bates and Vontarius Dora combined for 9.5 sacks.

Louisiana Tech finished tied for 15th in the country in rush defense, giving up just 117.7 yards per game. The Bulldogs were 29th in the country in Total Defense, giving up just under 350 yards per game.

Fifth year transfers Sokol and Bates, as well as new defensive coaches Manny Diaz, Blake Baker, and Oscar Giles all helped bring a new attitude to Louisiana Tech. With a quarterback and a defense that the team could believe in, the Bulldogs developed a little bit of a swagger as the season wore on.

Marshall presents an enormous challenge on the road, but Tech has been an underdog in a few games this year and played well above expectations. The Bulldogs have shut down a couple of high powered offenses this season, but none as balanced and talented as that of Marshall.

Louisiana Tech had a roller coaster ride of a year, enough to emotionally drain most teams. Skip Holtz has kept the team pretty level this year and he gives credit to his coaches and the leadership of the team.

Can the Bulldogs rise to the challenge and knock off Marshall? No one really knows, but this is what they play for. Louisiana Tech is playing for a conference championship in year two of their membership in CUSA.