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Pride on the line for Bulldogs

Louisiana Tech on the road to face Gamecocks in season finale Saturday
Friday, November 17, 2023
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Louisiana Tech closes the 2023 season on the road at Jacksonville State on Saturday and will need to play better than it did at home against Sam Houston a week ago. Photo by Darrell James

The final chapter in Louisiana Tech’s season will reveal a lot.

With the Bulldogs sitting at 3-8 overall and 2-5 in Conference USA — firmly out of bowl contention or a league title — it seems on the surface that Saturday’s meeting with Jacksonville State (7-3, 5-1 CUSA) is nothing more than one last game in a season the Bulldogs should forget and flush.

Sonny Cumbie and his players think differently. For them, Saturday is more than just a game to get out of the way before another trek into an offseason full of questions. It’s about pride, who wants to go out as a winner, and finding out who cares enough to fight until the end — even if the outcome won’t change Tech’s overall fate.

In many ways, Cumbie believes Saturday will show who is a true Bulldog.

“I think it’s a very revealing week,” Cumbie told reporters Tuesday. “It’s a very revealing game. It’s a revealing season whether you’re winning, whether you’re losing, whether you’re kind of in between, this game reveals so much character of people, players, of coaches, of everybody. My message to our players is there’s going to be at some point this next year, whether it’s next season for us, whether it’s five years down the road, whether it’s 10 years down the road, whether it’s a month from now, where you’re going to be challenged in ways that you would not like to be challenged in terms of things not going your way whether it’s as a husband, as a father, owning your own business, working for somebody you don’t like, working for a company where maybe the results aren’t what they should be like they’ve been in the past, and those are the lessons that are revealed through hard times and hard seasons like this.

“I’ve said this numerous times, this is not a take your ball and go home type of mentality, it’s a finish through the end mentality. It’s to get up and evaluate how you’re doing things and evaluate a better way to do things and then also about how you finish the season. It reveals a lot in terms of your resume as a coach, which I’m not proud of the record at all. I’m proud of the progress,” he added. “I’m proud of looking these guys in the eye every single day knowing that, for the most part, the group is doing everything they can do to help us win. That’s where the message and morale is.”

Cumbie, who’d been a part of only three losing seasons in his 13 years as an assistant coach prior to coming to Ruston, said Saturday can be the first step toward momentum for a Tech program in need of a jolt.

Having lost their last five games, including a 42-27 loss to Sam Houston (2-8, 1-5) on Senior Day, the Bulldogs have been stuck in a rut for a while – a reality Cumbie acknowledged as not being good enough Tuesday.

If Tech were to upset the Gamecocks, it’d be the program’s first win in its regular season finale since Nov. 30, 2019, against UTSA.

“It’d be huge. It’d be a huge shot in the arm,” Cumbie said on the idea of ending the year with a win. “We’ve lost five games, and four of the five games have been one possession games. The final score last week is going to be bigger than what it was, but we all saw how it got to that point and I think it’d be a huge shot in the arm in terms of momentum into the winter and into the spring for our football program to win on the road against a 7-3 Jacksonville State team that’s very good.”

Cumbie is correct in his description of the Gamecocks, who have transitioned from the FCS to FBS ranks with little issue on the back of a stout defense and top-ranked rushing attack leading the program to its second straight season with at least seven wins.

JSU has the No. 1 scoring defense ( 20.7 points per game) in C-USA, the No. 2 total defense (361.5 yards per game) in C-USA, and the No. 2 rushing defense in C-USA (112.7 yards per game), all while ranking top 10 in the country in sacks with 33.

For as good as the defensive unit has been for JSU, its running game is even better. The Gamecocks have the 6th-best rushing offense in the country at 218 yards per game, with running back Malik Jackson (624 yards, 4 TD) and quarterbacks Zion Webb (525 yards, 4 TD) and Logan Smothers (272 yards, 6 TD) delivering a threeheaded monster.

That doesn’t bode well on paper for a Tech rushing defense that ranks 6th worst in the country, allowing 206.5 yards per game on the ground. The Bulldogs will have to hope their run defense is better than what it got against Liberty on Nov. 4, with the Flames lighting them up for 305 rushing yards.

Tech has played four of the top-30 rushing offenses in the country in Liberty (1), New Mexico State (11), SMU (27) , and Nebraska (29) — with the teams combining to average 6.1 year per carry and 264.5 yards per game as a team in their meetings with Tech.

“They’re similar (to Liberty) from a schematic standpoint,” Cumbie said. “They do a really good job of finding your weak link and whether it’s how you line up to a formation or how you line up in a personnel group and attacking that. And so we’ve got to be really good with our looks up front and our guys have got to be great with their eye discipline at linebacker and safety. I think they do a great job, like Liberty, from that standpoint.”

Fifth-year defensive lineman Deshon Hall is a key member of the Bulldogs’ defensive unit tasked with keeping JSU in check, as the Gonzales native will play his final game as a Bulldog.

Hall leads Tech with 3.5 sacks this season – a career-high – to go with 29 tackles and 5 tackles for loss. Like his head coach, Hall said Saturday is the team’s final opportunity to show they care about finding a way to win, rather than accepting defeat.

It’s been part of his message throughout the final week to his teammates.

“I’m just trying to get my teammates to understand winning is hard,” Hall said Tuesday. “You gotta do whatever it takes to get that win. We got a lot of young guys and this was a rough freshman year for a lot of people. It was a rough year for everyone but the people that have never won on this level before, to see how hard it is to win and I want them to understand how hard it is. There’s a 2% difference between losing and winning and it’s just hard. I want them to know that the little things matter.”

Tech faces Jacksonville State at 1 p.m. Saturday at Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium in Jacksonville, Alabama. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.