Huntington, WV (SportsNetwork.com) – The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs made it out
of the Conference USA West Division with a 7-1 mark in league play, and will
travel this weekend to face the Marshall Thundering Herd in the conference’s
championship clash at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Louisiana Tech breezed through Conference USA competition during the regular
season until an overtime loss against Old Dominion in the second-to-last week
raised some concerns. But the Bulldogs squashed those feelings with an
absolutely dominant 76-31 victory over defending C-USA champion Rice at home
to earn a spot in the title game.
Marshall had already clinched its spot in the title contest after running
through East Division play and earning an unblemished record up until the
regular-season finale. Even though the Herd’s dreams of a perfect record were
shattered by Western Kentucky last weekend in a 67-66 loss, the team is still
a favorite to take the conference crown.
These two conference rivals have met just one time on the football field
before this championship matchup – a 26-0 shutout by the Bulldogs back in the
1942 season in Ruston, Louisiana. It’s been 72 years since that clash, so this
second matchup could be well worth the wait.
Louisiana Tech entered this season with high hopes, but it wasn’t until the
team took the field that fans saw what the Bulldogs were capable of. The
strong offense, which averages 38.8 ppg entering the title tilt with Marshall,
is led by two of the strongest offensive stars in the league. Running back
Kenneth Dixon had a stellar regular season, finishing the campaign with 1,080
rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on 220 carries. He led the team averaging 90.0
ypg, but also served as a primary target out of the backfield in the passing
game. He caught five touchdown receptions and averaged another 25.5 ypg
through the air during the season. Dixon is coming off a three-touchdown game
Cody Sokol took the reins under center and ran with them this season. The
signal caller passed for 3,117 yards (ranked 23rd in the FBS) with 29
touchdown tosses. He averaged 259.8 passing ypg in 12 contests, and comes into
this game sporting a completion percentage just shy of 60 percent. As an
offensive unit, the Bulldogs are gaining 415.2 ypg.
Dixon is certainly one of Sokol’s main weapons through the air, but Trent
Taylor has made his mark more than anyone in the passing game. Taylor enters
this weekend averaging 67.3 ypg receiving, having caught 61 passes this season
for 808 yards and a team-best nine touchdowns. Dixon’s five receiving scores
is second on the squad, while Paul Turner has proven his worth with 38
receptions for 466 yards and four scores through the air.
The team’s defense will have its hands full as it prepares for a Marshall
offense that ranks second in the nation in scoring and total offense. But that
hasn’t stopped the Bulldogs from doing plenty of damage this season, holding
opponents to 349.6 offensive ypg and 25.2 ppg. The same Western Kentucky team
that just posted 67 points on Marshall’s defense was held to a mere 10 points
by Louisiana Tech back on the first day of November, which could be very
Kentrell Brice leads the Bulldogs this season with 73 tackles, adding in three
sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles. But Tony Johnson isn’t far
behind Brice’s tackle total with 69 on the season, adding in six quarterback
hurries. Linemen Houston Bates (nine tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries)
and Vernon Butler (12.5 tackles for loss) are going to need to be very active
in trying to get to Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and slowing down a high-
powered run game. The Bulldogs do lead the nation in takeaways with 36 (12
fumble recoveries, 24 interceptions).
“This football team is really special to me because I do not know that I have
had a football team that has had to overcome so much, with the schedule, new
faces, new coaches and everything to make this year work,” coach Skip Holtz
said. “This group of guys is really special. They will always have a special
place in my heart.”
Marshall could be in for a real shock if running back Devon Johnson can’t go
this weekend after suffering a shoulder injury in last weekend’s loss to WKU.
The tailback carried the ball just three times before he was knocked out of
the game and replaced by Steward Butler, who ran for 233 yards and a pair of
scores in the relief effort. This season, Johnson has been a monster out of
the backfield, gaining 1,602 yards with 16 rushing scores, averaging 145.6
rushing ypg. It’s unclear if he will be ready to go this weekend
“Devon, he’s not in real good shape right now,” coach Doc Holliday said after
the team’s loss to the Hilltoppers.
Fortunately for Marshall, Butler has rushed for 761 yards and seven touchdowns
this season in the reserve role. Cato has been a capable runner as well,
scoring six touchdowns with his feet. But the passing game is where Cato
excels the most, throwing for 3,314 yards and 35 touchdowns against 12
interceptions (four of which came in last weekend’s loss). The senior signal
caller did toss a school single-game record seven touchdowns in that contest,
however. He’s the centerpiece of an offense that is averaging 46.7 ppg and
574.6 offensive ypg.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to put (the loss to WKU) behind us because we’re
playing for a championship,” Holliday said. “And the leadership on this
football team has to do a tremendous job of putting this game behind us and
moving on because the ultimate goal was to win a championship, and we’ve still
got that out there for us.”
Defensively, the Herd have been dominant as well. The 67 points allowed to
Western Kentucky raised the team’s scoring average significantly, and it’s
still at a mere 20.7 ppg. It was the first time all season long that Marshall
allowed more than 27 points to a challenger, and just the third time all
season the Herd gave up more than 20 points or more in a single game.
Linebacker Neville Hewitt leads the team with 100 tackles this season, adding
in 10.5 tackles for loss with 4.5 sacks. He and lineman Arnold Blackmon (13
tackles for loss, eight sacks, four forced fumbles) will be the two players
the Herd turn to in order to slow down Dixon and Sokol. Darryl Roberts (15
pass breakups), Corey Tindal (11 pass breakups) and Taj Letman (four
interceptions) will be tasked with keeping the strong Louisiana Tech pass game