By Malcolm Butler
After struggling to establish any type of running game during the first two weeks of the season, Louisiana Tech found it on Saturday night.
Keith Willis, Jr., rushed for a career-high 188 yards and two scores — including runs of 65 and 68-yards — to lead the Bulldogs to a 51-21 win over Northwestern State at Joe Aillet Stadium.
In the 80th all-time meeting between the two programs, the Bulldogs totaled 367 yards on the ground and capitalized on three interceptions, including a 49-yard interception return for a TD by Cedric Woods, to pull away from the Demons in the second half.
“Too many big plays but also costly penalties,” sixth-year NSU head coach Brad Laird said. “You look at two different situations in that football game, digging ourselves out of the hole being down early to get it to 17-14, and we had some special teams miscues. Then you get it to 31-21 in the second half and had the momentum, but certain penalties showed up at the wrong time.”
Tyre Shelton scored on a 41-yard TD run in the first quarter and Charvis Thornton added a 30-yard TD run late in the second quarter as the Bulldogs won for the 55th time in the series, the first meeting since 2016.
“I have been told all summer long how important this game was by our fans,” said Tech head coach Sonny Cumbie. “It’s in-state against an old rival. I’ve been told numerous times that this is a game we must win.”
The so-called must win didn’t look like a lock early in the third quarter when Northwestern State recovered a fumble on the first play after halftime and scored four plays later to close the Tech lead to 31-21.
However, the Bulldogs responded.
After Jacob Barnes kicked the second of his three field goals of the night to push the lead to 34-21, Tech exploded with two TDs in a 14 second span of time.
Willis raced 68 yards for a TD with 8:06 to play in the third quarter to make it 41-21. On Northwestern State’s first play from scrimmage following the kickoff, Woods stepped in front of a Tyler Vander Wall pass and returned it 49 yards for a score and a 48-21 lead.
“Those two plays were huge for us,” said Cumbie. “That provided the separation we had been looking for all night.
“Offensively, we were feast or famine, we hit some big plays and then execution was down in the redzone. We got to execute better in the red zone. We are looking forward to breaking this one down, there is still some mistakes we left out there.”
Tech led 10-0 late in the first quarter when Vander Waal hit Scooter Adams on an 11-yard TD pass. The Bulldogs then pushed the lead back to 10 when Willis took a handoff up the middle and raced 65-yards untouched to paydirt with 11:41 to play in the second quarter.
Vander Waal and the Demons responded again with a 9-yard run by the NSU quarterback with 5:41 to play before halftime. Tech led just 17-14.
Hank Bachmeier, who was quiet most of the night when the Bulldogs ground game producing, hit Koby Duru from 11-yards out on a fade route in the far corner of the end zone with 3:18 to play to make it 24-14.
After Tech forced an NSU punt in the closing 90 seconds of the first half, Demons punter Brett Money dropped the snap as the Bulldogs swarmed him on the 30-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage following the special teams mistake, Thornton took a handoff and raced 30 yards for a score and a 31-14 halftime lead.
“From a standpoint, the coaches on the headset, we were lining up in a formation and they are giving us two looks and we stayed in them and kept calling the same play,” said Cumbie. “We were able to have success with it. Credit to the offensive line and those backs.”
The Bulldogs defense surrendered three touchdowns on the night, but recorded three turnovers, forced eight punts and registered four sacks on the night.
“The defense made big plays,” said Cumbie. “They did a nice job creating takeaways.”
Myles Heard led Tech with 15 tackles while Will Roberts and Mykol Clark each added eight stops. Roberts, Woods and Jhamal Shelby Jr each intercepted a Vander Waal pass in the game. Freshman Michael Richard added four tackles and three pass break ups.
“Mike doesn’t flinch,” said Cumbie. “He is going to continue to get challenged. They see 13 out there and see he is a freshman and say let’s go after him. That is fine, Mike answers the call. I can’t say enough positive things. He is mature beyond his years. We are going to need him to play well and play consistent.”
Tech returns to action Saturday when the Bulldogs host North Texas at 6 p.m.