It’s essentially an inevitable truth now that La Tech will win nine games. Just ask the mother site.
At the start of the season there were many questions about filling positions. After two years of running graduate transfers at quarterback, Skip Holtz decided to stick with Ryan Higgins. He also needed to find a replacement for star running back, Kenneth Dixon. Lastly, most of the defense was gone.
Holtz was able to piece together a pretty effective offense. Ryan Higgins had a huge turnaround season few saw coming. Dixon’s replacements, Jarred Craft and Boston Scott became a two-headed monster, but Tech made up the slack by fielding one of the nation’s best passing offenses.
Let’s review the 2016 season in four parts:
Part One: Shaky Start
Prior to the start of the season, Ryan Higgins was undisciplined. Redshirt freshman quarterback J’Mar Smith made his grand appearance during the Arkansas game. Considering he had never played a single down of college football and was getting his very first start (and snap) on the road against the SEC West, most felt like he did pretty well despite the 20-21 loss. His performance combined with Higgins’ past struggles led many to expect (or at least hope) that Smith would take over as starting QB.
However it was Ryan Higgins that took the field for the home opener against South Carolina State. After a four hour weather delay, it was a rough first half that frustrated many and seemed to validate the calls for Smith. But the second half was quietly strong from Higgins, who built up enough of a lead to allow Smith and third string quarterback Price Wilson to mop up in the 53-24 win.
The offense started to gel on the road in Lubbock, but Texas Tech exposed the Louisiana Tech defense for really the first time. The road trip to Middle Tennessee started well, but the defense caved in the second half of the 34-38 loss. This was followed by an apparent new Tech tradition: a less-than-stellar win in an early conference home game.
The start to the season had plenty of ups and downs. It was at this point the Hilltoppers came to town.
The defending conference champs hadn’t lost a conference game since their last trip to Ruston in 2014, where Louisiana Tech defeated then-newcomer WKU 59-10 on homecoming. The Hilltoppers wanted revenge.
The game started off as a shootout, with neither team able to separate. Tech started to get separation late in the first half, and continued through the third quarter. WKU came from behind just like their rivals from Murfreesboro had done and a blocked punt made it a three-point game. Just when all seemed lost for Bulldog fans, the struggling Tech defense forced a game-winning fumble to knock off the Hilltoppers in one of C-USA’s best games in 2016.
Louisiana Tech’s coaches would later point to that game as a turning point in the season and this takes us to the next phase.
Part Two: Dominance
Beating WKU put Tech at 3-3 and on a two-game winning streak. That momentum would carry the Bulldogs through the bulk of their schedule. They had to play five more games before their very late bye week and they won each one handily. Starting with the win At UMass then At FIU, Rice for Legends’ Day and At North Texas. The final win was homecoming/senior day versus UTSA. No one could stop the Bulldogs.
Tech clinched bowl eligibility for a school record third straight year and clinched their second west division crown in three years. The Bulldogs only had one more regular season game before the C-USA Championship Game. No big deal, right?
Part Three: Just when you got your hopes up...
This wasn’t just any regular season game, you understand. This was the game that Tech fans and players circled on the calendar in red ink before the season. This was the game everyone was waiting for.
It was the Rivalry in Dixie.
It was also a revenge game from the drubbing Tech experienced the year before. This time around Tech already had the division locked up, but needed this win to secure home field advantage for the conference title game. Tech was coming in at 8-3 and on a seven game winning streak. Southern Miss was 5-7 on a 3 game losing streak. Everything seemed in place for Tech to exact revenge on their conference rival, who had been playing without their starting quarterback, Nick Mullens. Tech players were noted talking about “ending their season” because “they ended ours.”
The Bulldogs didn't count on Mullens return. Southern Miss won 39-24.
This loss caused the Bulldogs to play on the road once again at WKU. This time around a healthier Hilltopper squad won the rematch 58-44 to claim their second straight title.
Part Four: One Last Shot at Glory
Louisiana Tech, now at 8-5 at this point, had one more game to play. The Lockheed-Martin Armed Forces Bowl vs Navy (#25) in Fort Worth. This was the first time Tech played in a bowl game for three consecutive years. It was also an opportunity for their first win over a ranked opponent since 2005. This game gave Tech the opportunity to end the season on a very high note.
CBS Sports rated this matchup as the third best bowl game of the season. Louisiana Tech played a thrilling game, beating the Midshipmen 48-45 on a last second field goal.
The Bulldogs finished with nine wins and a bowl victory for the third straight year.
Tech fielded a powerful offense with a weak defense and rode it to their fourth nine-win season in five years. There were some disappointments, but this was mostly a season of achievements for the Bulldogs. For a program that had three winning seasons from 2000-2010, five winning seasons from 2011-2016 is a sign of greater things to come.
Overall I’d give Louisiana Tech a B+ for 2016. A division title and a bowl victory over a ranked opponent is great, but there were too many opportunities missed to give an A. It’s hard to overlook the one-point loss to Arkansas, blowing the lead against Middle Tennessee, and laying an egg at Southern Miss. Without these mistakes Louisiana Tech could have been ranked in 2016 and hosted the C-USA championship for the first time. Since the home team has always won in the all-time series between the Bulldogs and WKU, maybe a conference title could have been secured too.
I think most Tech fans, including myself would call this season a success. Here’s to trying for 10 wins in 2017.