A busy opening Saturday of bowl season concludes with a night cap in the Big Easy.
This year’s New Orleans Bowl, its 15th playing since 2001, pits Sun Belt champion Arkansas State, who went undefeated in conference play, against Conference USA West Division runners-up Louisiana Tech. The two schools are separated by about 300 miles and at one point earlier in their respective histories were conference rivals.
From 1971-1986, the two teams played in the Southland Conference which was part of NCAA Division II and later I-AA (now FCS). Both enjoyed a great deal of success during this time. ASU finished an undefeated 11-0 in 1975 and made the I-AA championship game in 1986 (losing 48-21 to Georgia Southern), while La Tech won a total of eight league titles.
Both would leave the Southland after the 1986 season to make the gradual transition towards what is now known as FBS. They spent a few years as an independent at both the FCS and FBS level before eventually joining the Big West in 1993. Three seasons later, they became independents again. Eventually, their paths from a conference affiliation standpoint would diverge for good in 2001, when Arkansas State moved to the Sun Belt (to which they still remain) and Louisiana Tech joined the WAC. The Bulldogs made the move to Conference USA effective in 2013 when the WAC was forced to drop football.
Saturday’s postseason matchup at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (9 PM, ESPN) marks the programs’ first meeting since 1998 when La Tech romped to a 69-21 win. It will also be the first time since 2010 that a school other than Louisiana-Lafayette has represented the Sun Belt in the game.
New Orleans Bowl Preview: Arkansas State vs. Louisiana Tech
The Red Wolves have been the mark of consistency in the Sun Belt despite a great deal of coaching upheaval in recent years. The school has had four different head coaches since 2011, three of whom departed in successive seasons for more lucrative coaching opportunities (Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss; Gus Malzahn, Auburn; Bryan Harsin, Boise State). Despite that, they’ve won four of the past five conference titles including this year’s under second-year head coach Blake Anderson.
This is a team that has excelled at establishing the run game in 2015, averaging 235.83 yards per game on the ground, good enough for 14th-best nationally. Senior running back Michael Gordon is one of seven Sun Belt players to have eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing this season. He’s also gotten help from freshman Warren Wand who has added 641 yards. The two are both top-ten in the conference in yards per carry and have combined for 13 touchdowns.
Perhaps ASU’s biggest strength is its secondary, which boasts playmakers all around. Overall, the Red Wolves lead the nation in both interceptions (26) and pick sixes (6), with junior defensive back Money Hunter having returned two for touchdowns. Rocky Hayes is another ball-hawking corner whose direction of the field you throw to at your own risk. His six interceptions on the year is tied for fifth-best nationally.
Another player to watch on the defensive side of the football is defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. The redshirt sophomore edge rusher leads the conference with 8.5 sacks and has also added 11.5 tackles for loss which have resulted in the fourth most yards lost for opposing offenses in the league.
After making just a single bowl appearance in school history before 2011, Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl will mark the program’s fifth straight. The previous four have all been in the GoDaddy.com Bowl where they’ve won and lost two apiece including a 63-44 defeat at the hands of Toledo on January 4th of this year. A win would give the program its third ten-win season in five years after having just one in the previous 29.
Two figures needing a change of scenery in order to bounce back from adversity have certainly done so in Ruston.
The first of these is head coach Skip Holtz who has led the Bulldogs to its second consecutive bowl appearance in his third season in charge. This after getting fired from South Florida after a less than successful three-year stint there. The son of legendary coach Lou Holtz won a C-USA division title last season and nearly did so again in 2015 before a loss to rival Southern Miss in the season finale ended those hopes.
Holtz’s quarterback this year, redshirt senior Jeff Driskel, is also realizing success in a different locale. The Florida transfer had a single season of eligibility remaining and used it to great effect with the Bulldogs. Driskel finished the regular season fourth in the conference in both passing yards (3,575) and touchdowns (24). He also finished second in Conference USA with eight passes of 50 or more yards.
Senior running back Kenneth Dixon isn’t going to wow you with his raw rushing numbers. He tallied just 968 yards on the ground in 2015. That said, he also finished with 17 rushing touchdowns which was tied for ninth best in FBS. He’s also an extremely effective pass catching back which he demonstrated in the team’s previous game against Southern Miss, notching 81 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions.
This team’s strength on defense is their ability to stop the run, which certainly should help them against Arkansas State. They rank ninth nationally in rushing defense conceding just 114.5 yards per game. Redshirt freshman defensive end Jaylon Ferguson as well as senior linebacker Nick Thomason have combined for 26.5 tackles for loss, demonstrating their ability to stuff opposing runners.
The Bulldogs will be appearing in their eighth bowl game in school history on Saturday including their third in the previous five seasons. To this point, they’ve compiled a 3-3-1 all-time record in those bowls. Last season was arguably the most high-profile of their three bowl wins, a 35-18 victory over Illinois. A triumph over Arkansas State in New Orleans this year will not only put them above .500 in their bowl history, it will give La Tech just its fourth season of nine or more wins since making the jump to FBS in 1989.
What To Expect
Both these teams certainly know how to put points on the board. The two programs rank in the top 20 in scoring offense while Arkansas State is one of 14 to average more than 40 points per game. The Red Wolves are likely going to try to ground and pound their way to victory, while La Tech might rely quite heavily on Driskel and the nation’s 15th best passing offense.
That could be a recipe for success on defense for State, given the penchant their secondary has at not only forcing turnovers but turning them into points. The Bulldogs are fairly one-dimensional on offense, with roughly two-thirds of their production yardage-wise coming through the air. Despite Dixon’s impressive rushing touchdown numbers, six of those came in a fairly lopsided win over North Texas, one of FBS’ worst teams this year.
Given the geographical proximity both these schools have to New Orleans, there should be plenty of fans in the stands. Even though the Bulldogs are favored and C-USA is perceived as being stronger than the Sun Belt, I think the game plays to Arkansas State’s strengths more so than La Tech’s and as such have the Red Wolves coming out on top.
Score Prediction: Arkansas State 36, Louisiana Tech 27
Photo courtesy of New Orleans Bowl.