Louisiana Tech head football coach Skip Holtz explains how the offense can right the recent red zone troubles.
Cory Diaz/The News-Star
RUSTON – By now, the entire country that follows college football has seen the play.
Louisiana Tech was looking at second-and-goal at the 6 in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game against Mississippi State when center Ethan Reed’s snap sailed over quarterback J’Mar Smith’s right shoulder. Queue the blooper music.
Smith tried to jump on the ball, but it shot out from under him and five Mississippi State defenders each got hands on the ball but kicked the ball during the sequence before Tech wide receiver Cee Jay Powell pounced on it at his team’s 7 to set up third-and-93. MSU led, 50-14, at that juncture.
After the game, Skip Holtz said he had never seen an 87-yard loss before in all his experience in football. The gaffe caught on like wildfire over social media. And while how the play developed is embarrassing, where the miscue started is what frustrates Holtz.
The bad snap was the second mistake for Louisiana Tech’s offense in as many trips to the red zone in the second half versus State. A fumble on a rollout by Smith on the 10-yard line early in the third quarter caused at minimum a 10-point swing as MSU nose guard Jeffery Simmons picked up and raced 90 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
“Biggest issue in the red zone is we had two turnovers. One is the debacle that went 87 yards. And then one was a goal line play where J’Mar tried to run it in, he fumbled and one of the best nose guards in college football picked it up and ran 90 yards,” Holtz said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “What do you do better? You don’t fumble. It goes back to self-inflicted wounds.
“Turnovers are one of the things that’s hurt us bad. We were minus-3 in the turnover battle, which you have about an 18 percent chance to win not matter who you’re playing. We’ve got to quit turning the ball over.”
Overall through two games, the Bulldogs (1-1) have turned the ball over six times and rank tied for 86th in the country in red zone offensive efficiency, scoring eight times, six of those touchdowns, in 10 trips. Tech scored on its first eight red zone attempts of 2017 but execution inside the 20 in the second half against Mississippi State has the offense trending the wrong way.
Opening up Conference USA play Saturday night at 6 p.m. at the preseason favorite to repeat as East Division champions in Western Kentucky (1-1), who’s given up a touchdown in the red zone on defense at a 50 percent clip, Holtz and his coaching staff will be preaching ball security as their team enters the meat of a tough stretch on the schedule.
“I hope some of our youthful mistakes don’t cost us football games especially early in the season when five of our first seven opponents are bowl teams. Whether it’s on the road at Western or home against a Mississippi State, we’ve got to get these things corrected in a hurry,” Holtz said. “With an embarrassing loss, as lopsided as it was, I think we’ve got every player’s attention. They realize how important some of these things are.”
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Senior defensive lineman Chris Johnson leads a Hilltopper defensive front that’s accrued 10 tackles for loss through two games. While WKU’s defense has only caused one turnover, an interception, it doesn’t give up scores, allowing 37 points to Eastern Kentucky and Illinois.
It’s important for the Louisiana Tech offense this week to protect the football inside the red zone and take advantage of obvious scoring situations. For Holtz, the solution is rudimentary.
“When you look at our red zone stats, we just got to do a better job of understanding how important that football is. It’s like my father told me, ‘The ball is so important, they named the game after it,’” Holtz said. “You can’t throw it around like it don’t mean anything. We can’t play without. And you certainly can’t play offense if you don’t have the football. We got to do a better job of protecting it.
“We’ve got to eliminate some of those mistakes to be able to operate at a high level to be able compete with the first half of our schedule which is very challenging.”