Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz breaks down how the offense looked in the season opener versus Northwestern State.
Cory Diaz/The News-Star
RUSTON — Louisiana Tech mistakes allowed Northwestern State to keep the game tight.
The Bulldogs flipped the script in the fourth quarter and used two interceptions to pull away, 52-24, Saturday at Joe Aillet Stadium in both teams’ season opener.
Redshirt junior linebacker Dae’Von Washington picked off two passes in as many drives in the fourth as Louisiana Tech cashed in both takeaways to extend a seven-point advantage to its largest lead, 45-24, with 9:40 remaining.
Washington halted a promising NSU drive to at the start of the final period at the Tech 31, corralling a tipped pass from Demon junior backup quarterback Clay Holgorsen and returning it 21 yards back across the 50. In five plays, Tech drove 47 yards, sprung by a physical run by redshirt sophomore quarterback J’Mar Smith before junior running back Jarred Craft plowed in from 2 yards out.
Demon senior starting quarterback J.D. Almond headed to the locker room the previous series to get an IV for dehydration, and the Bulldogs defense took full advantage of his absence.
Three plays into NSU’s next possession, Washington read Holgorsen’s eyes all the way, sitting in the middle of the field and snagging a pass on the Demons’ 36-yard line. Smith connected with redshirt sophomore wide receiver Rhashid Bonnette for a quick touchdown strike on the next play from scrimmage. Senior Johnathan Barnes converted the PAT, putting the Bulldogs ahead, 45-24.
Northwestern State turned the momentum of the game early in the second half. In the opening ticks, freshman Corban James forced Bonnette to fumble the kickoff and senior Lyn Clark picked up the loose ball and took it down to the Tech 3. Senior running back punched it in from there, pulling the Demons within, 24-17, 15 seconds into the third.
James struck again on the Bulldogs next series, causing Smith to fumble on a hit from behind as senior linebacker Nick Pierotti pounced to get NSU the ball back with a short field at the Tech 27. Two plays later, the Demons scored on a trick play, a lateral pass from Almond back to receiver Bobb Chan-Chan to tight end Lucas Morgan for a game-tying 27-yard touchdown less than two minutes in the second half at 24.
All eyes were on Bulldog sophomore quarterback J’Mar Smith as he completely took the reins of Skip Holtz’s offense.
In his second career start, Smith started slow as the offense stalled out on its first two drives and settled for a 31-yard Jonathan Barnes field goal, cutting into Northwestern State’s lead, 7-3, with 3:58 left in the first quarter.
The offense’s first touchdown didn’t come until the last two minutes of the first half. For the half, Smith completed just 8-of-17 passes in the first half as the offense produced just 10 points, and finished the game 18-for-35 for 276 yards and two scores.
Smith hit on a couple of deep balls, but Holtz will be looking for more consistency as Mississippi State comes calling next weekend.
Veal the Real Deal
One of the hardest things for Northwestern State to do Saturday was tackle Teddy Veal. The Tulane transfer turned starting junior wide receiver for Louisiana Tech shook off an uncountable amount of would-be Demon defenders.
And the highlight came on a punt return in the second quarter where he was seemingly wrapped up by three NSU gunners, but somehow escaped and raced 71 yards down the home sideline for a touchdown, Tech’s second non-offensive score of the game, at the 9:46 mark.
Veal ended with 86 punt returns yards and offensively was the team’s second-leading receiver with three grabs for 40 yards.
Secondary settles in
It was a nightmarish start for defensive coordinator Blake Baker and the Bulldogs defensive backfield that contained four first-time starters. Three plays into these youngsters’ season, J.D. Almond and Jaylen Watson drew first blood with a 52-yard touchdown bomb that senior safety DaMarion King has a chance to intercept but mistimed his jump.
But subtract those 52 yards from the Demons’ passing totals for the night, and the inexperienced Bulldogs secondary allowed just 204 yards and no passing scores the rest of the way.
First-time starter junior safety Elliot Blankenship led the defense with six tackles. King had five stops and another first-time starter junior cornerback Trey Spencer recorded a pass breakup.
Louisiana Tech (1-0) hosts SEC foe Mississippi State (1-0) next Saturday at Joe Aillet Stadium at 6:30 p.m.
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