J’Mar Smith tossed three touchdowns and Jonathan Barnes became the program’s all-time leader in made field goals leading Louisiana Tech to a 34-16 win over South Alabama before 22,013 fans at Joe Aillet Stadium Saturday night.
Smith set career-highs in completions (24), yards (317) and touchdowns, tossing scoring strikes of 40, 10 and 30 yards to three different receivers. The sophomore hit nine different receivers on a night that saw him also utilize his running ability in attacking the Jaguars defense.
Barnes’ 31-yard field goal with 3:07 to play in the second quarter was the 66th of his career, moving him past former Bulldog Josh Scobee for first place in the Tech record books. He added a 29-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that gave Tech a two score cushion.
After USA (1-4) took an early 7-0 lead on a 29-yard TD strike with 9:20 to play in the opening quarter, Tech (3-2) reeled off 17 straight points. Smith hit Teddy Veal for a 40-yard score on an out pattern that saw Veal catch the ball around the Jaguars 30-yard line before breaking two tackles and outracing the rest of the USA secondary to the end zone.
Three minutes later, Tech struck again. This time Smith rolled out of the pocket to his right and found Jarred Craft in the back right corner of the endzone on a tremendous catch for a 10-yard scoring strike. Barnes’ PAT made it 14-7 with 4:18 to play in the first quarter.
On the first play of the second quarter, Barnes entered the Tech record books, connecting from 31 yards and capping a 10-play, 44-yard drive. Tech led 17-7.
“It is a W,” said Tech head coach Skip Holtz. “The thing that was just, it was frustrating offensively tonight. We really got kind of out of a rhythm. It seemed like we started off so well and we were really rolling along.”
After amassing 212 yards of total offense in the first quarter, the Bulldogs became stagnant, totaling just 78 total yards of offense in the second and third quarters combined. Field position also played a factor as Tech’s five offensive possessions in those two quarters started on the Bulldogs own 1, 11, 12, 19 and 28-yard lines.
“In the second half, especially the third quarter it felt like we were on the edge of a cliff on our own goal line most of the third quarter,” said Holtz. “And we were, most of those third downs were probably 15 plus. So penalties, dropped balls, it certainly wasn't a very clean game offensively.”
Defensively, the Bulldogs bent but never broke after the initial touchdown by South Alabama in the first quarter. Tech’s defensive unit surrendered just three field goals (41, 46, 26) over USA’s final 11 offensive possessions. Bulldog safety Scedrick Cooper also recorded the first two interceptions of his career, including one with USA inside the Tech red zone.
“It felt great,” said Cooper of the interceptions. “The first interception of my career and it was great to have two of them. We practiced hard this week. We had a different type of focus this week, and it showed at clutch times in this game. And I want to thank Coach (Blake) Baker for helping us out by having us out fighting each day and competing.”
With Tech holding onto a slim 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter, Smith led the Bulldogs on a seven-play, 90-yard drive that was capped by a 30-yard scoring toss to freshman Adrian Hardy in the front right corner of the south endzone. It was the first career TD reception by Hardy, who ended the night with a career-high four receptions and a career-high 68 yards.
Following a defensive stop by Tech on USA’s next possession, the Bulldogs mounted an 11-play, 77-yard drive that took 5:49 off the clock. Barnes’ 29-yard field goal pushed the lead to 27-16. The drive was highlighted by a 19-yard reception by Veal, who led all Tech receivers with five catches for 88 yards.
With their back against the wall and time running out in the fourth quarter, South Alabama failed on a fourth down play from their own 27-yard line. Tech took over with 3:24 remaining and on the first play from scrimmage, Boston Scott raced up the middle untouched for a 27-yard scoring run for the final TD of the night.
Tech totaled 189 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter while the Bulldog defense held USA to only 31 yards of total offense over the final 15 minutes. In the Jaguar’s final five possessions, the Bulldog defense forced four punts and a turnover on downs.
USA quarterback Cole Garvin threw for 235 yards but completed just 21-of-45 passes with two interceptions in the game. Xavier Johnson rushed for a game-high 89 yards on 12 carries for the Jaguars.
“Just so happy with the way we competed early,” said USA coach Joey Jones. “We go in “at halftime, it was a close ball game, come out third quarter is nip and tuck, back and forth. The defense gave the ball to us a couple times inside the 50, and we just didn't cash in on those opportunities we had to at that time.
“In the fourth quarter they made some long drives and just kind of iced the game. But that's a very good football team we just played, probably going to win a Conference USA and there's no moral deals in here, no moral victories at all.”
Scott led the Tech ground game with 76 yards on six carries while Craft added 49 yards and Smith chipped in with 37 yards.
“We knew they were coming in there and they did exactly what we thought they were going to do,” said Smith. “They switched it up just a little, but we reacted in a good way. We threw the ball down the field, and got two touchdowns early. But I just wished we could have continued it throughout the game, just not had a bad quarter. But that's the game of football. You have ups and downs, and you have to find a way to dig through it and fight for the next play.”
The Bulldogs return to action Saturday when they travel to Birmingham to face UAB at 3 p.m.