Louisiana Tech senior defensive end Deldrick Canty explains how the defense helps the offense get going after the team’s season-opening win.
Cory Diaz/The News-Star
RUSTON – Run them out there, let them take a punch on the chin and gauge their reaction. That’s really the only way Skip Holtz was going to know.
Youth and inexperience at several positions clouded any preseason picture the Louisiana Tech head football coach tried to formulate during the team’s month-long fall camp.
The four Bulldog starting wide receivers entered Saturday night’s season-opening contest at Joe Aillet Stadium against the program’s old rival Northwestern State having just 11 starts combined — all 11 from redshirt freshman slot receiver Alfred Smith.
On the defensive perimeter, 25 or so preseason practices and scrimmages tossed multiple names, jersey numbers and varying skill sets into the camp blender, and the coaching evaluation mixer concocted a starting blend of two seniors, a junior, sophomore and true freshman, including four first-time starters, all tasked with improving a pass defense that ranked 116th in the country in 2016.
It was there, in the secondary, where the Demons drew first blood with a swift jab three plays into the season opener with senior quarterback J.D. Almond launching a 52-yard pass to Jaylen Watson into double coverage. Tech senior safety DaMarion King had a play on the ball and could’ve intercepted it but mistimed his jump and Watson came down with the touchdown catch 1:23 into the game.
For the remaining 58:37, the defensive backfield allowed just 204 yards through the air on 18-of-38 passing. With a tight ballgame early in the crucial fourth quarter, Tech led 31-24, redshirt junior linebacker and former walk-on Dae’Von Washington picked off two throws on back-to-back drives, setting up the Bulldog offense in good field position after both plays.
Louisiana Tech capitalized, scoring two touchdowns in six plays in less than three minutes, stretching the lead to 45-24 with 9:40 left.
“We always talk about giving the ball back to the offense,” said senior defensive end Deldrick Canty, who had a sack and two hurries. “We always want to set our offense up to make plays. So our defense, we stress it a lot to always try to do our best and make sure we get three-and-outs, or do our best to get a ball and make sure the offense don’t score.”
The offense with redshirt sophomore quarterback J’Mar Smith who was earning his second career start, along the crop of receivers that haven’t been counted on before got off to a sluggish start, producing 10 points in the opening half. There were drops by a few receivers and Smith made a few ill-advised throws, all to be expected in the first contest for new starters Teddy Veal, Marlon Watts and Kam McKnight out wide.
Northwestern State clawed back from a 24-10 halftime deficit to tie the game at 24 less than two minutes into the third thanks to two Tech fumbles in consecutive drives. Smith orchestrated the offense’s best drive late in the third, a nine-play, 74-yard drive. Senior running back Boston Scott picked up two key third downs on rushes and redshirt sophomore Jaqwis Dancy, in his first game back from beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer, capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.
Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz breaks down how the offense looked in the season opener versus Northwestern State.
Cory Diaz/The News-Star
With Mississippi State coming to Ruston next weekend and Louisiana Tech opening up Conference USA on the road against Western Kentucky in two weeks, the team’s defense and its ability to create turnovers like it did in the fourth quarter, in key opportunistic points in the game, will be big as the Bulldogs offense works out the kinks.
“I think we’re going to have to find other ways to win than just scoring 50 points a game,” Holtz said. “We’re going to have to find other ways to win because I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that on a consistent basis as we get into the course of the season. I thought J’Mar threw a couple of really nice deep balls that made some big plays, but I think mentally we were not very sharp.
“There’s feast and famine in tonight’s victory. I’m grateful to come out with a win to be able to correct some of these mistakes. Not one of our prettier performances in the last couple of years, but a lot of guys were playing in their first football game.”
Despite his first game in a Tech uniform, Veal found an impact and also eased the slow offensive start in the first half. At 6-foot, 192, the former Tulane player is not the biggest guy, but he doesn’t go down on first contact and he let the Demons know it on a punt he returned for a 71-yard touchdown where three gunners had arms on him but he escaped and raced to the end zone to give his team a 17-7 lead in the second quarter and the second straight non-offensive score from special teams.
“What an incredible individual for him to get there. He’s a competitive, tough, physical football player, and he plays that way,” Holtz said. “I think Teddy Veal has a chance to really be special, and I think he showed that tonight.
“A great hit on the kickoff team. The ball came out and I saw (DeJuawn Oliver) taking off toward our sideline and I was just hoping he could get in the end zone. I’m happy for him. Here’s a young man that was a walk-on in our program that deserved a scholarship.
” I told the team there were going to be three stories to this game. One, was special teams. I didn’t realize how accurate I was with special teams being a huge difference in this game.”
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