Skip Holtz knows a thing or two about winning Conference USA championships. He coached East Carolina to a pair of them in 2008 and 2009 before replacing Jim Leavitt at USF.
Holtz is back in C-USA and in just his second season at Louisiana Tech, has a team that looks very much like a contender for his third league crown.
The Bulldogs opened C-USA play Thursday on the road for the third straight week, facing a North Texas squad that won nine games in 2013 and was the preseason pick to represent the West in the 2014 conference title game.
They also came in on short rest, just five days removed from a 48-20 blowout of Sun Belt Conference preseason favorite Louisiana-Lafayette.
All Louisiana Tech did was surpass the 40-point threshold for a second straight week. The Bulldogs’ 42-21 win was more lopsided than the final score indicates, as their lead ballooned to 42-7 early in the fourth quarter before Skip Holtz took his foot off the gas.
In just two weeks, Tech has 90 points; it scored 230 points all of 2013.
Skip Holtz taking over play-calling duties this offseason has obviously paid off. Louisiana Tech is recapturing some of the explosiveness that defined the program in Holtz’s predecessor Sonny Dykes’ tenure. Two years ago, the Bulldogs led the nation in scoring offense.
Holtz and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen are not operating with the same no-huddle, air-raid system Dykes employed. That makes the Bulldogs’ vast improvement from 2013 all the more impressive, as this group has mastered a different style rather quickly.
It also doesn’t hurt that Holtz inherited a well-stocked cupboard. His East Carolina teams typically featured outstanding running backs, and he had the nation’s rushing touchdown leader upon his arrival.
Preseason 1st Team All C-USA selection Kenneth Dixon has rolled the last two weeks with three touchdowns, including one Thursday. Dixon gained the bulk of his 77 rushing yards in the second half, effectively taking the air out of the ball to prevent any hope of a North Texas rally.
But the offensive star Thursday was quarterback Cody Sokol–a fitting leader for this Bulldogs staff.
Sokol shook off a slow start to strike for five touchdowns, making full use of Tech’s talented receiving corps. Eight Bulldogs caught at least one pass, and five hauled in three or more.
What makes Sokol something of a kindred spirit for Skip Holtz and this program is that at Louisiana Tech, he’s finding an opportunity to prove himself.
Sokol drew considerable attention as a JUCO recruit in 2012, ultimately choosing Iowa over Arizona. But in two years with the Hawkeyes, Sokol could not factor into Kirk Ferentz’s plans.
With nine scores through three games, Sokol is the nation’s very early passing-touchdown leader.
NFL legend and La Tech WRs coach Tim Rattaycongratulates his young prodigy Cody Sokolafter his 3rd TD pass. pic.twitter.com/IVYLizj8XU
— Courtney Fallon (@CourtneyFallon_) September 12, 2014
Like his quarterback, Skip Holtz is proving himself all over against at Louisiana Tech.
His success at East Carolina made him a hot commodity, but is run with the Bulls of USF was ill-fated.
With Louisiana Tech’s start to 2014, Holtz is on his way to reaffirming his coaching credentials. The Bulldogs offense is clicking, but the team’s defensive has perhaps been more impressive.
Such was Holtz’s M.O. when he was competing for and winning C-USA championships at East Carolina. In the late 2000s, the league was known for high-octane offenses behind such coaches as Todd Graham, Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin.
Yet, the Pirates’ stifling defense reigned over the conference.
The Louisiana Tech defense was virtually impenetrable until the decision was well in hand Thursday. The Mean Green were held scoreless at intermission with 26 totals. At one point, the Bulldogs defense forced a remarkable six straight three-and-outs.
If you're counting at home…Louisiana Tech has forced six straight three-and-outs and held North Texas to just three total yards.
— Sean Isabella (@ST_IsabellaTNS) September 12, 2014
The Bulldogs defense features talented playmakers, including a few potential NFL’ers like cornerback Xavier Woods and defensive tackle Vernon Butler.
Unlocking Tech’s defensive potential is another Bulldog proving himself all over again: coordinator Manny Diaz.
Diaz is a quintessential example of the fickle nature of college football. In 2011 while at Texas, he was among the hottest assistant names in the country. Two years later, he was fired just three games into Longhorns head coach Mack Brown’s final season.
Despite Texas’ struggles against BYU and Ole Miss last season, it’s not as if Diaz had suddenly forgotten how to run a defense. ULL head coach Mark Hudspeth, known for overseeing a potent offensive style, said as much before the Ragin’ Cajuns faced Tech last week.
“I know what type of job of he does. He’s an exceptional coach,” Hudspeth told Tim Buckley of The Advertiser. “High-energy guy. He will have that defense chasing the football, I can assure you that.”
Prescient words indeed. The 20 points ULL scored were two touchdowns-and-extra points fewer than the Ragin’ Cajuns averaged in 2013. And, much like Tech’s win over North Texas, ULL did almost all of its scoring after the outcome was well in hand.
Coaches and players often talk of playing with chips on their shoulders. There’s plenty of reason for Louisiana Tech to carry such chips in 2014.
And with a proven C-USA winner at the helm, the Bulldogs could parlay the proverbial chip on the shoulder into a league championship.