Louisiana Tech football coach Sonny Dykes isn't sure how he could have predicted just how good his Bulldogs have become this season.
By rallying from a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit and winning 24-20 at Nevada on Saturday, Louisiana Tech (7-4, 5-1) is in first place in the Western Athletic Conference.
WAC front-runners typically rise to prominence with high-scoring offenses. But for Tech, it's the defense that has deserved much of the credit over Dykes' spread attack.
Even in defeat, Louisiana Tech generally has looked good. The Bulldogs have come closest to knocking off No. 8 Houston (11-0), one of only two undefeated teams left in the nation.
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The Cougars had to score the final 28 points of the game to beat Tech 35-34 on Sept. 17.
"We had a lot of unanswered questions coming into the year," said Dykes, whose main issue going into his second season was finding a starting quarterback for his pass-oriented offense. "You start the season off with an unproven quarterback – that's always a big question mark for you. The schedule was challenging – we played four conference road games ... long trips.
"When you looked at it ... we [were] probably going to be a year away. But we felt like we had a team that if we continued to improve and develop an identity offensively, then we had a chance."
Colby Cameron, a redshirt junior out of Newbury Park, has thrown for 10 touchdowns, been intercepted once and has a 151.2 efficiency rating.
Meanwhile, under defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler, Tech ranks fourth in the nation with 17 interceptions and 15th with 25 total turnovers forced.
The Bulldogs don't rely on defensive sophistication, running mostly a base 4-3 and using Cover 2. They line up seven defenders in the box, typically rush four and use their two safeties as rovers to protect the back of the defense.
"We don't blitz," Dykes said. "We didn't blitz one time Saturday [against Nevada]. I think we've blitzed two times in the last three ballgames. Our guys are lining up right. They're getting off blocks. They're in the right gap.
"I'm not saying we don't make mistakes. We make tons of mistakes. But we're playing real simple, real fundamental football."
Even against one of the WAC's more powerful offenses in Nevada (6-4, 4-1), the Bulldogs allowed 31 yards in the final quarter.
"I always felt like the more base defense you can play, the better you are," Dykes said, "because those guys are playing techniques that they practice all the time, understand the defense and don't bust."
Nevada RB booted
Wolf Pack running back Mike Ball was kicked off the team for violating unspecified "team rules and protocol," the Reno Gazette Journal reported.
Ball rushed for 704 yards, including 198 in a 45-38 win against Fresno State. An ankle injury limited him to one play in each of the past two games.
His dismissal secures more playing time for Lampford Mark (Buchanan High) and also perhaps Stefphon Jefferson (El Diamante) and Kendall Brock (Clovis West). Mark has topped 100 yards in each of the past three games.
Boos, what boos?
Hawaii (5-6, 3-4) remains in danger of missing a bowl after being the WAC preseason favorite, and fans continue to voice displeasure.
There was a strong chorus of boos early in the second quarter Saturday after Fresno State took a 17-0 lead and forced Hawaii to punt on its next possession.
Coach Greg McMackin, in the fourth year of a five-year contract, said he was unaware of any boos.
"I didn't hear it – I had my headset on," said McMackin, whose repeated naiveté on controversial topics has been one source of the fans' unhappiness.
McMackin did say that sophomore David Graves will remain his starting quarterback for the rest of the season. Hawaii must beat Tulane and Brigham Young in its final two games to play in the Hawaii Bowl.
Graves came off the bench in the second quarter against Fresno State and passed for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 33 yards and a score.
Hawaii is without starter Bryant Moniz, the former Fresno City College standout who likely is out for the season with an ankle injury. Shane Austin got the start Saturday but was just 6 of 13 for 45 yards.
"David gives us the flexibility of using his feet, and he throws the ball well," McMackin said. "He gave us a chance to win."
Utah State nearly eligible
After a 2-5 start, Utah State is one of the most clutch teams in the WAC.
The Aggies (5-5, 3-2) won their third straight tight affair, beating Idaho 49-42 in double overtime. Running back Robert Turbin scored the winning touchdown for the second time in three weeks.
Utah State hosts Nevada on Saturday and plays at New Mexico State to end the regular season. It must win one to become bowl eligible, though likely needs two victories to clinch a postseason bid.
Utah State hasn't been to a bowl nor even won as many as six games since 1997, when it played in the Humanitarian Bowl.