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Recap: Louisiana Tech prevails over Rice in OT defensive battle, 23-20

Bulldogs QB J’Mar Smith dives past the goal line for 12-yard TD to win it in overtime.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Louisiana Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith handled the snap on the shotgun. He hesitated for a moment, facing against a Rice defense which imposed its will all game long. Smith found a crease on the left side of his offensive line and impulsively entered uninhabited territory. With daylight around the corner, the senior tucked the ball, put his head down, and dove past the goal line.

By the time, he stood up, the celebration had already ensued in Houston. Louisiana Tech never held a lead in the entire contest, except for the 23-20 advantage it held when Smith’s 12-yard run concluded. The Bulldogs improved to 4-1 with their second C-USA victory while Rice suffered its fifth-consecutive loss as one of three teams in the country (New Mexico State, Akron) still searching for its first win.

“This week was a huge week for us,” wide receiver Austin Trammell said. “This was supposed to be our breakout game, opening into conference and letting people know we’re not an 0-4 team. We are, but we’re a lot better than our record shows. This week was super important and it really stinks that we couldn’t finish it in order to make that statement.”

Rice outplayed Louisiana Tech for a greater portion of the game. Pitted against the top scoring and yards per game offense in the conference, the Owl defense set the tone on the first drive when defensive tackle Myles Adams dropped Smith in the backfield for the first of three Rice sacks, and then the offense built on that.

“I think it was a lapse in protection of the Louisiana Tech o-line,” Adams said on his momentum-building sack to start the evening. “I found the seam, I took the space, and I made the play.”

On each of its first two drives, the Owls unleashed their best brand of offense they’ve displayed all season. Running back Aston Walter rushed around the edge for a 16-yard run and then followed it up with a 2-yard score at the start of the second quarter.

On top of his two touchdowns, Walter eclipsed the century mark with 118 yards and constantly broke free for considerable gains. Wide receivers Brad Rozner (five receptions, 64 yards) and Austin Trammell (five receptions, 53 yards) created openings in the Bulldog defense to move the chains in the early going. And the signal caller, quarterback Wiley Green looked comfortable in the pocket completing 6-of-7 passes in the opening half.

In between the Rice scoring drives was one of two Louisiana Tech touchdowns in regulation. The Bulldogs offense was propelled primarily by the arm of Smith, who managed 210 yards on the Owls’ secondary. His 9-yard touchdown lob to Adrian Hardy, who made an athletic leaping grab in the end zone, put Louisiana Tech on the scoreboard early.

It would take over 32 minutes of game time before the Bulldogs re-entered the end zone. During that time, the Owls’ offense unleashed several promising drives, but none affected the scoreboard. With five seconds remaining in the half, Rice quarterback Tom Stewart — who led the last two drives of the half — threw an interception in the back of the end zone, Rice’s first of the season.

Rice’s opening drive of the third quarter also featured a missed opportunity at scoring, as the Owls shanked a 36-yard field goal. These mistakes allowed Louisiana Tech to claw back, and all it needed was one possession to tie. Running back Justin Henderson knotted it at 14 apiece by shedding Rice defenders at the line of scrimmage and emerging for a 26-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Rice suffered from an offensively-challenged sequence which featured four consecutive punts, a far cry from the assertion shown on the opening drives.

“We had a hard time for a large section of the game — in the middle of the third quarter through the fourth quarter — of completing a pass,” Bloomgren said. “It was different reasons. It was a drop, it was a missed throw — for those reasons we just felt good about keeping it on the ground.”

In the final three minutes, two field goals were traded between the conference foes. Rice punter Chris Barnes connected on a 36-yarder, which was instantly answered 101 seconds later by a Bailey Hale field goal for the Bulldogs. Louisiana Tech quickly maneuvered down the field on two long passes to set up shop in field goal range, a rare drive in which Rice’s defense faltered. Rice’s defense quickly recovered by forcing three consecutive incompletions including a key break-up by inside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain in the end zone, but Louisiana Tech still emerged with three crucial points.

Rice’s offense, which produced three second half points, continued to stall in overtime. A three-and-out in the extra period led to a 4th-and-2. Rice left the offense on the sidelines and called on Barnes, and the senior executed on his second field goal attempt. The defense took the field one last time, but Louisiana Tech snatched the win away on Smith’s 12-yard run.

“With the way our kids had played and the way our defense had played all game, you gotta keep a game like that going,” Bloomgren said on his decision to kick at the 17-yard line. “4th-and-2 is not difficult. It’s not that I didn’t believe in us to get it. I believe our team played too well not to kick that field goal.”

Bloomgren’s team came as close as possible to its first victory, but the standings still read “0-5.” With seven conference games remaining and plenty of promise shown in the last several weeks, Bloomgren knows its time the Owls graduate from close losses and learn how to win.

“It’s so frustrating to say that we’re close, but we’re close,” Bloomgren said. “I really believe with all my heart, when we break through, when we find a way to get these wins, we’re gonna be a tough team to deal with.”