Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech haven't butted helmets since 1998, which is like a Better Than Ezra CD ago. Before then, the two programs played regularly, with the Bulldogs owning a 25-12 rivalry advantage.
Much has changed for both programs since last these titans clashed. Louisiana Tech has become a perennial winner in CUSA, while Arkansas State has become the premier program of the Sun Belt. This December 19th, the rivalry is briefly revived at the New Orleans Bowl. I asked Sean Isabella of The News-Star for his penetrating perspective of what appears to be a very compelling match-up.
Louisiana Tech and Arkansas State haven’t played one another since 1998. How has LaTech evolved in the past 17 years?
SEAN: The obvious is conference affiliation. Louisiana Tech was an independent back in the 1990s before transitioning to the WAC and now Conference USA in 2013. The move to C-USA helped Tech move forward with its stadium upgrades that began several years ago. The school opened a new $22 million end zone facility in September and it generated a significant amount of buzz, especially in recruiting.
Jeff Driskel was named CUSA’s Newcomer of the Year. What makes him such a dangerous quarterback?
SEAN: I don't view him as dangerous, but maybe that is just my opinion. That's not a knock on him, rather the way Tech uses him. He's a steady quarterback who does what is asked of him. They haven't used him as much in the run game as I thought, but he can sling the ball around when given time. He's good for a handful of deep shots a game and has gotten more accurate as the year has gone on. His experience is the main thing that has lead to a relatively successful offense (minus the last two games of the season). He rarely gets rattled and excels in late-clock situations (end of first half and end of game situations).
Driskel isn’t the Bulldogs’ only offensive threat. WR Trent Taylor and RB Kenneth Dixon come first to mind. Who else should the Red Wolves prepare for?
SEAN: Carlos Henderson. I've said this several times this year that Henderson was sort of Tech's missing link on offense. Taylor is a classic slot receiver, so Henderson provides a speed element to take the cover off defenses. He has been injured most of the year, but when healthy he is capable of putting up 100 yards just off a few catches.
Given the rivalry’s steady history prior to 1998, A-State old-timers are especially hungry this game. How are the Red Wolves regarded by Bulldog fans?
SEAN: Depends who you ask. Some don't necessarily care either way and just want to see Tech play. I've seen things on Twitter in regards to message board fodder, and those folks don't think too highly of Arkansas State or the Sun Belt in general. I'm not sure why there is some inferiority complex there. It's not just limited to Arkansas State because Tech fans feel the same way about UL Lafayette. Interested to see if it was just a knee-jerk reaction after the announcement or if they'll mellow out by next weekend.
Obviously, the loss to Southern Miss put a bit of a wet towel on an otherwise extraordinary season. With Driskel and Dixon gone next year, what’s the future like for Louisiana Tech?
SEAN: It should be pretty solid, although unclear how the team will look in 2016. The quarterback situation is an obvious question mark. Tech won't have the luxury of a graduate transfer quarterback. Most of the offensive line is back, and Taylor and Henderson return. The defense is probably the biggest question mark. Eight major contributors (starters) on defense will be gone next year.
The Red Wolves lead the nation in interceptions (26) and defensive TDs (8). Driskel only has 8 picks on the year, but he tossed three of those against Southern Miss. Does the Red Wolves aggressive defense worry Louisiana Tech?
SEAN: Maybe. Tech doesn't mind playing an aggressive secondary because Driskel feels he can take advantage of coverages if team's decide to man 1-on-1. The key for Tech is to get protection. When Driskel is under siege, like he was against Southern Miss, it can lead to the three interceptions folks saw. It honestly all starts with Kenneth Dixon. He's been banged up so a healthy version should alleviate some of the pressure off the passing game.
Who on the Red Wolves gives Louisiana Tech the greatest concern?
SEAN: Probably the passing game in general. Arkansas State is statistically better running than throwing, but solid quarterbacks have eaten Tech up this year. Obviously, Fredi Knighten isn't Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty or Mississippi State's Dak Prescott or even Southern Miss' Nick Mullens, but should have opportunities to beat Tech through the air.
How do you see this game playing out?
SEAN: Tech was able to capitalize on a sleepy 6-6 Illinois team in the bowl game this year. The Bulldogs won't have that luxury this year in what I anticipate as a hungry Arkansas State team. On paper, it's a good matchup for Arkansas State because Tech's defense has shown inconsistencies this year, especially with its pass defense. It would not surprise me if this game is high-scoring, like something in the high 30s or low 40s. Tech wins by a field goal.