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Louisiana Tech has Smoke, potential, and a really bad defense

Louisiana Tech is on to something, but there are too many missing pieces right now.

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl - Louisiana Tech v Georgia Southern Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

If you catch a tear rolling down Dave Doeren’s cheek on Saturday, it might be because the first game he ever coached at NC State was against Louisiana Tech. Or it might be that something much more important is going on. In either case, I wouldn’t ask.

It’s been a long time since that 40-14 NC State win in whatever year that was, some time ago. and in that time, time has passed. So what is Louisiana Tech now? What do we expect from these Bulldogs?

Based on the early returns, they’re not even sure what to expect. Louisiana Tech acquitted itself well at Mississippi State, ultimately blowing a three-score lead against a team that ranks 36th in SP+. The Bulldogs also dropped a tight one to SMU, which ranks 40th. But Louisiana Tech only barely maneuvered around FCS Southeastern Louisiana and last week had to outlast North Texas, which ranks 112th. (The latter result at least partly being explained by the absence of starting quarterback Austin Kendall.)

There’s some potential in this group, but the variation probably has a lot to do with the fact that there are 54 freshmen on the roster. This is not to say that the Bulldogs are terrifyingly green—that tally includes non-scholarship players, and many of the scholarship guys got experience last season. They have a handful of returning starters on defense that are freshmen or sophomores, for instance.

But that defense was not good in 2020 and not much appears to be improving despite Louisiana Tech bringing back 15 of its top 16 tacklers. The Bulldogs surrendered 6.1 yards per play last season, good for 90th nationally. This season, they have allowed 6.0 YPP, good for 101st. That includes giving up 7.1 YPP to Southeastern Louisiana.

These guys have been on the field a lot: Southeastern Louisiana ran 86 plays, SMU ran 88, and North Texas also clocked 86. Opponents have converted on nearly 44% of third downs, and Tech is surrendering 4.5 yards per rushing attempt. SP+ hates Tech in general but especially hates this defense, which it ranks 118th out of 130 teams.

Being on the field a lot does lend itself to some prolific raw stats, and Tech has some playmakers at linebacker. Tyler Grubbs and Trey Baldwin have 62 tackles between them and last year combined for 184. That’s nice and everything, but it tends more toward window dressing when your defense isn’t putting the other team behind the sticks.

Take this year: Louisiana Tech’s defense has been on the field for 326 snaps, which is the ninth-highest total among FBS defenses. Yet the Bulldogs rank 107th in tackles for loss. It’s just not a team you really have to worry about causing problems at the line of scrimmage.

The offense has done what it can to counter these shortcomings, which generally has required a lot of passing. Louisiana Tech is led by traveling quarterbacksman Austin Kendall, who you may remember from such games as NC State vs. West Virginia 2019.

Kendall’s career trajectory is one you could only find in college sports: five years ago, he was a freshman at Oklahoma; after two years there, he spent two years at West Virginia. Then, and this is from the Louisiana Tech game notes, he “had been working in Dallas doing medical sales for five months before he joined the 2021 Louisiana Tech squad.”

Kendall’s football career has been marred by injury and he did not play against North Texas last weekend, for “medical reasons,” which partly explains the Bulldogs’ troubles in that one.

He was only average against Mississippi State, but he posted a standout performance against SMU, with over 350 yards passing on nine per attempt. He has thrown an interception in every game he’s played this season.

At running back, Tech is led by graduate transfer Marcus Williams, who left App State after four good years for a more prominent role. He’s averaging 4.2 yards per carry and has a pair of rushing scores. Running the ball hasn’t been a big part of Tech’s offense, and they’re averaging 3.3 yards per carry against FBS teams.

The Bulldogs have an interesting talent at wide receiver in Smoke Harris, who is only 5’6 and operates in a hybrid receiver/scat-back role. He led the team with 39 receptions in 2020 but averaged only 7.8 yards per catch. He led the team with 47 grabs on 7.4 per in 2019.

This season, he has a team-high 21 grabs at 9.8 per catch. They’ll get him opportunities in space on some lateral throws and try to change eye levels with some double moves to get him opportunities down the seams. As a fan of guys defining unusual roles in football, I already like him. He averaged 21.5 yards per punt return last season. Good player.

Tech also has good potential on the outside with Tre Harris, who leads the team in receiving yards (215) and receiving touchdowns (3), and that’s to say nothing of Bub Means, whose name is Bub Means. He’s averaging 21 yards per catch.

You can understand why Louisiana Tech’s offense is capable of making plays, it’s just that the Bulldogs have had to replace three starters on the offensive line, and there’s nothing about their running game that scares people.

I’d expect them to hit on a chunk play or two, but whether or not Austin Kendall plays, it shouldn’t matter.