Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: It had been a decade since the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs were major players in the Western Athletic Conference, having to battle the likes of Boise State, Nevada, Hawaii and Fresno State on a yearly basis, but last season the team responded to a weak start by capturing the conference title outright and startling more than a few folks in the process.
Louisiana Tech, which was one of just 14 FBS programs that didn't make a single change on its coaching staff from 2010 to 2011, appeared to be heading towards another disappointing campaign when it opened with a 19-17 road loss to Southern Miss, and then needed overtime to defeat Central Arkansas (48-42) in the home opener. From there the program dropped three straight decisions versus Houston, Mississippi State and league foe Hawaii which meant it was heading into the heart of its WAC schedule already with a 1-4 record.
Through the first five games of 2011, LaTech was 114th out of 120 FBS schools in pass defense, giving up 304.6 ypg and the scoring defense overall was 103rd (33.2 ppg). However, head coach Sonny Dykes was able to rally the troops and get them back on track, so much so that they ran the table the rest of the way in the regular season, ripping off seven consecutive victories. Perhaps most impressive about the run was the fact that the team tallied five of those wins on the road in a span of six games.
The Bulldogs propelled themselves into the postseason with a 44-0 romp over New Mexico State in the regular-season finale, setting up a meeting with TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. Unfortunately the Horned Frogs, ranked in the top-20 at the time, managed to hold off LaTech in a 31-24 final, leaving the Bulldogs with an 8-5 record overall after posting six wins in seven tries against league opponents.
There were plenty of accolades to go around in Ruston after the team finished so strong, with punter Ryan Allen being named the Ray Guy Award winner, just the second player from the Bulldogs ever to be recognized with a national award. The Bulldogs registered a total of 11 All-WAC performers, the most all- conference honorees for the program in a single year. Louisiana Tech, which will be trying to make back-to-back postseason appearances this coming season for the first time since 1977-78, enters the campaign riding a five-game road win streak which is the longest for the squad since it rattled off an astounding 11 in a row between 1973-75.
OFFENSE: "The good thing is we feel good about several quarterbacks," coach Dykes says about the most important position on the field. "Obviously Colby (Cameron)'s our starter and he had a great spring. He's had a really good summer. I think he's starting to come into his own from a confidence standpoint."
Now a senior, Cameron appeared in just seven games a season ago, but still managed to average 238.1 ypg en route to 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The signal-caller has to be excited about the fact that he has someone like Quinton Patton to throw to down the field because the wideout is a guy that opponents have to plan for and have yet to show that they can fully shut down.
The WAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, Patton was a First-Team All- WAC selection last year after catching 79 passes for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season with the Bulldogs. He was also named to the 2012 Biletnikoff Award Watch List, which recognizes the top receiver in the nation.
With quarterback and wide receiver in good hands, the only concern now is finding a strong young man to fill the void left by Lennon Creer, the team's top running back in 2011 who generated 838 yards and 9 TDs. Even though he was just a freshman last year, Hunter Lee showed flashes that he could be something special moving forward as he placed second on the unit with 650 yards and 5 TDs on the ground.
Making the transition to another top-flight running back will be made easier by the fact that there are four returning starters along the offensive line in Kevin Saia, Stephen Warner, Oscar Johnson and Jordan Mills. Each one of them is at least 305 pounds and all are seniors, which is a rarity in college football these days.
DEFENSE: The secondary appears to be quite solid for the Bulldogs heading into the 2012 campaign, with four returning starters. All of them will be tested quite a bit seeing as how the linebacking position has been depleted with the loss of both Adrien Cole and Jay Dudley who led the squad in tackles a season ago with 128 and 112, respectively. Cole was a beast as he gained access to the backfield, recording a team-best 13 tackles for loss while adding 3 blocked kicks. Dudley led the team with 4 interceptions. Losing Matt Broha along the defensive line will also be difficult to overcome.
Senior defensive back Chad Boyd, a 2011 All-WAC Second Team selection, might be a bit undersized at 5-10, but he still hits as well as anyone back there and finished last season with 76 tackles. Fellow defensive backs Chad Boyd, Jamel Johnson and Quinn Giles are also returning starters who bring senior status and experience to the field one last time.
LaTech ranked second in the league and 25th nationally in sacks a year ago with close to 2.5 per contest, but the loss of Broha (7.5 sacks), as well as Christian Lacey (8.5 sacks) means there's a huge void to fill in that area as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: What else can you say about punter Ray Allen that hasn't already been expressed with his Ray Guy Award? The senior averaged an incredible 46.1 yards per punt a year ago, with a career long of 72 yards versus Mississippi State. While it is a comfort knowing that when the offense stalls the team can fall back on someone like Allen, really the Bulldogs are hoping they have to use their specialist less and less because that means the offense is operating at peak efficiency.
Senior Matt Nelson returns as the place kicker after connecting on 15-of-21 field goal attempts and knocking through all but two of his 48 PATs a season ago.
Patton handled some punt returns last season and a few kickoff returns as well, so assuming the Bulldogs want to put a scare into the competition, expect to see him back there once again.
OUTLOOK: The Bulldogs have been picked to repeat as league champions in 2012, a logical selection given how much talent returns for the squad. But some of that faith in LaTech is also based on the fact that the rest of the depleted league will struggle.
"There's a little more made out of that than there really is," coach Dykes says of being the conference favorite. "At the end of the day, it's about those guys going out and playing on the field. I don't think it's that much of a difference than if we were picked fifth in the league like last year. Obviously it didn't matter, we finished first. The preseason deal didn't really matter much. This team is certainly capable of finishing fifth after we were picked first this year."
The non-conference schedule is manageable, although with the season-opener against Texas A&M being played in Shreveport the Bulldogs will essentially be on the road for four of their first five games and that could take a toll on the group.