LA Tech pulls away to down FIU in C-USA opener

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LA Tech 43, FIU 31
(Photo: Donny Crowe)

RUSTON, La. – Bailey Hale tied a school record with five field goals, Justin Henderson rushed for three touchdowns and Amik Robertson made a late special teams play that lifted Louisiana Tech to a 43-31 win over FIU in the Conference USA opener at Joe Aillet Stadium Friday night.

After a scoreless first quarter, the Bulldogs (3-1, 1-0) scored on nine of its last 10 possessions of the game while amassing 565 yards of total offense against the Panthers (1-3, 0-2).

Hale connected on field goals of 25, 45, 41, 25 and 29 yards to tie his own record of five field goals in a contest, set in a win over North Texas last season in Denton. Kyle Fischer also hit five field goals in a win over FIU in 2013 in Miami.

Henderson recorded his best day as a Bulldog, rushing for 141 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries to help Tech total 275 yards on the ground. Jaqwis Dancy added 73 yards on 17 carries while quarterback J’Mar Smith rushed for 63 yards on 10 attempts.

Henderson scored on runs of 29, 6 and 6 yards as all three of his TDs gave Tech leads throughout the game. His six-yard run with 4:16 remaining in the third quarter gave Tech a 27-24 advantage, a lead it wouldn’t ever relinquish.

FIU quarterback James Morgan kept the Panthers in the contest, completing 29-of-41 passes for 394 yards and two scores. Seven different FIU players caught passes led by Shemar Thornton (7-97-1), Tony Gaiter (7-87) and Austin Maloney (5-113).

Morgan found Anthony Jones for a one-yard TD with 51 seconds to play in the game, cutting the Tech lead to 36-31. The score set up an onside kick that the Bulldogs needed to recover to seal the win.

On the onside kick attempt, Robertson scooped up a loose football at the FIU 30 yard line and raced untouched to the endzone for his first special teams score of his stellar career. Robertson added six tackles and three pass break ups in the win.

Smith had another solid night under center for Tech, completing 27-of-41 passes for 290 yards and one score with one interception.

Tech’s defense made a couple of huge plays during the night. The first came early in the game when FIU faced a fourth down and goal for the Bulldogs two-yard line. Jones took the handoff and dove over the pile. Instant replay confirmed that Tech linebacker James Jackson forced a fumble, knocking the ball out of Jones outstretched hand just inches shy of the goal line. Aaron Roberson recovered in the endzone for a touchback for Tech.

The second turnover of the game came with Tech leading 33-21 with less than six minutes remaining in the game when Michael Sam picked off a Morgan pass at the Tech 29-yard line and returned it to midfield, setting up Hale’s fifth field goal of the game.

Louisiana Tech 43, FIU 31

Head Coach Skip Holtz Opening Statement

“It’s always great to win, especially in conference. We didn’t expect it to be easy, and we knew it would be a dogfight. I was really proud of our football team tonight. Coming in we talked about how important it is to defend this field and how important winning at home is. We talked about the history and the overall record at Joe Aillet Stadium. We talked about our 14-2 stretch a couple years ago and how over the past two years we’ve been 6-6 and that has to change. I was really proud of the way we came into this game – very focused and very dialed in. At this point, we’re one fourth of the way through the season, and this is when the real season starts – in conference play.”

“To come out here on a short week and play the way we played against a very tough FIU team is very encouraging. I give FIU and Coach Davis a lot of credit. I thought his team competed and never quit. I think (QB James) Morgan is as advertised – he has a big time arm and was slicing us up in coverage. I thought Coach (Bob) Diaco and the staff made some changes that helped us slow them down a bit. Defensively, we got the stops we needed. We gave up almost 400 yards passing tonight, but we got timely stops. We’ll have to correct some things and see where we need to improve.”

“I thought our special teams did a nice job against a team that ranked No. 1 in punt and punt return. Offensively, the biggest thing that comes out of it was the way we were able to run the ball. 45 rushes for almost 300 yards rushing. We really challenged our offensive line and our running backs and I thought they stepped up. It was nice to see them compete the way they did. We had a lot of balance in this game plan, and I thought the players did a really good job of executing it. I’d love to have a couple calls in the red zone back again, but overall I was really proud of our effort. I hated the little banter that finished the game, because it took away from a really well-played and hard-fought game by both sides. We’ll come back on Sunday and get ready for the Rice Owls in conference game number two.”

On scoring on eight of the team’s final nine drives
“We had a lot of nine, ten, twelve play drives in this game. I felt like we were moving the ball, even after the deflected interception. After that we gave our guys an opportunity to start running the ball downhill after gaining some yards on first down, and I thought that made a huge difference. I didn’t feel like we really flipped a switch as much as guys just stepping up and making big-time catches and runs when we needed them.”

On the performance of the offensive line
“We knew coming in that we couldn’t be a one-dimensional football team. We didn’t want to throw it 80 times a game. It’s hard to move the ball consistently when you put all that pressure on your quarterback. I think balance on offense is what it’s going to take for us to become the team we want to be. Tonight was a huge vote of confidence for the line as a whole. I was really proud of the way they came off the ball and played tonight. They were the difference. That and the running game.”

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