Prior to the arrival of Skip Holtz in Ruston, Louisiana Tech had been to six FBS/I-A bowl games in its history and was 2-3-1 in those games. Skip Holtz took over in 2013 and the first year didn’t go well. But then in 2014 and 2015, the Bulldogs went to bowls in back to back years for only the second time in school history (1977 and 1978 Independence Bowls was the first), and for the first time in history, WON back to back bowls. Now in 2016, La Tech will be going to a bowl for a third straight year, something never done before in Ruston.
Skip Holtz came in 2013, the same year La Tech joined C-USA. After a rebuild in 2013, he has gotten Tech to the postseason three times, something no single coach has done since Maxie Lambright during his tenure from 1967-1978. There hasn’t really been an elite coach at Tech since then. Will Skip Holtz be long remembered in Ruston? Only time will tell, but he’s off to a great start.
In his first two bowl campaigns, Holtz got Tech to 8-4 in the regular season. In 2014, Tech won the west division but lost on the road to Marshall in the C-USA championship game. The Dawgs would go on to record its first ever bowl victory over a power 5 opponent with their 35-18 win over the Big Ten’s Illinois. They fell short of the C-USA title game in 2015, but knocked off Sun Belt Champion Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl.
This year, many wondered if this would be another rebuilding year. A lot of talent was lost, including three NFL draft picks (highlighted by 1st round pick Vernon Butler) and basically the entire defense. They also had to replace star running back Kenneth Dixon and quarterback Jeff Driskel (the other two draft picks). The defense definitely suffered, but the offense actually may have gotten BETTER. After a slow start to the season (1-3), the Dawgs broke off seven straight wins and clinched the west division. The end of the season wasn’t ideal, however, as a poor showing against arch-rival Southern Miss cost them the chance to host the C-USA Championship Game. They played like their usual selves again in Bowling Green against WKU, but fell short of the title.
The 2016 campaign seems much like the 2014 year. Losses to both P5 opponents (although this year’s games were much closer than 2014) and another early season loss. The Bulldogs then got it rolling before dropping their last road game to an opponent perceived to be lesser, costing them the opportunity to host. They then had to go to on the road to play the east champ, where they fell short and a late interception sealed the loss. In 2014, Tech would then rebound to win the bowl game. Will that happen this year?
We’ll find out on December 23 when La Tech takes on #25 Navy in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl. Their third straight bowl appearance has the C-USA West champs facing the American West champs in Amon G. Carter Stadium on the campus of TCU in Fort Worth.
This will be Tech’s second bowl appearance against a ranked team. They previously played #15 TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl, losing 24-31. They will now be playing in TCU’s stadium against a service academy. La Tech has never beaten a service academy team (0-2 against Navy, 0-2 against Army) so a win here would clear that blemish on the record.
This will be an interesting challenge for the Bulldogs. The struggling defense will now have to face an option offense, which can be tough to defend if you aren’t used to playing against it. Discipline is key. The bright spot is that Tech hasn’t usually had too much trouble stopping the run. It’s the pass they have trouble defending, so that could be a positive. However, if Navy can dominate time of possession, the Tech defense could get tired.
In the American Championship Game against Temple, Navy QB Will Worth and slotback Toneo Gulley each broke bones in their respective feet. Worth was starting in place of senior Tago Smith, who suffered a season-ending injury of his own in Navy’s opener, so unless Worth has a miracle recovery, the Bulldogs will be facing Navy’s 3rd-string quarterback.
Tech was hoping to face a power 5 opponent in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, but so many Big Ten teams made it into the New Years’ Six that there weren’t enough to fill that spot. With that in mind, this seems like a good opponent. It may be a G5 opponent, but it’s a good one. It’ll be an interesting game with how different these two offenses are. Just like last year’s Armed Forces Bowl (Cal vs Air Force), you’ve got a ground and pound option team facing a spread/air raid attack.
The destination itself is a good one. The stadium enjoyed major renovations in recent years. It’s close enough that someone in Ruston could, if they chose, drive there and back in a single day, saving Tech fans hotel money. Fans who would rather spend the night will have a huge city to roam and plenty to do. Tech should bring a strong number of fans to this game, especially considering there’s bound to be plenty of alumni in DFW. Shreveport, the largest alumni base, is an hour closer than Ruston. The downside, however, is that they may be outnumbered. Service academies have alumni and fans all over the country, and military members can get free tickets. Local service members who would otherwise have no rooting interest may attend and support Navy.
With Louisiana Tech facing #25 Navy and WKU facing Memphis, this bowl season will see C-USA in two marquee match-ups against the American. C-USA went 2-0 against the American last year. Can they do it again?