Bulldogs overcome second-half struggles, clamp down on UTEP

HOT HAND:  Louisiana Tech quarterback Parker McNeil rebounded from a rough outing in his last start two weeks ago, throwing four TD passes to help the Bulldogs win their Conference USA opener Saturday night in Ruston. (Photo by JOSH MCDANIEL, Louisiana Tech Athletics)

By MALCOLM BUTLER, Lincoln Parish Journal

RUSTON – Parker McNeil threw four touchdowns and the Bulldog defense forced four turnovers to lead Louisiana Tech to a 41-31 Conference USA win over UTEP Saturday night at Joe Aillet Stadium.

McNeil, who was pulled in his last outing after throwing four interceptions against South Alabama, hit 18-of-27 passes for 266 yards and four scores without throwing a single pick.

Tech (2-3, 1-0 C-USA) made the most of its 14 days to prepare for the game following a difficult loss to South Alabama. New coach Sonny Cumbie was pleased with how his team performed against the Miners (3-4, 1-2).

“We had a focus about us and I am proud of our response from last week,” said Cumbie. “We made a conscious effort this week to take care of the football. Our offense was able to make plays. Our wide receivers showed up big tonight.”

The Bulldogs came out of the gate strong, scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions of the game on McNeil hookups to Tahj Magee (8 yards), Tre Harris (38 yards) and Smoke Harris (9 yards) to open up a 20-3 first quarter advantage.

Tech held a 23-10 lead late in the second quarter following a 28-yard field goal by Jacob Barnes when cornerback Myles Brooks stepped in front of a pass and raced 44 yards for a pick six with 2:36 to play in the first half, giving Tech a 30-10 halftime lead and the momentum.

That was the good news.

The bad news was the Bulldogs third-quarter struggles continued . . . at least to a point. After scoring on all but one of its possessions in the first two quarters, Tech’s offense was non-existent in its first three possessions of the second half. Three 3-and-outs saw Tech gain negative nine yards.

Meanwhile, the Miners’ offense ate up yards and the clock. But not the scoreboard.

A 17-play drive ended in a failed fourth-down play with 7:59 to play in the third quarter as the Bulldogs’ defense stood tall. After a 3-and-out by Tech, a 14-play drive by the Miners followed . . . once again ending in zero points after another stop by the Bulldogs’ defense on fourth down inside the red zone.

“We got knocked around a little bit in the third quarter,” said Cumbie. “We gave up some plays over the middle and gave up some third-and-longs, but we tightened up. We were able to have a lead that forced UTEP to go for it in some situations. We made stops when we needed them and got takeaways.”

The Miners scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to close the deficit to 30-24, but on a third down and two from the Tech 21-yard line, McNeil found Tre Harris down the right sideline for a 64-yard pickup to the UTEP 15 yard line. On the next play, McNeil hit Smoke Harris for a 15-yard score. The two-point conversion upped the lead to 38-24.

Freshman Buck Buchanan hit a 52-yard field goal with 4:28 to play to seal the win for Tech.

Tre Harris caught 5 passes for 126 yards while Griffin Hebert recorded 6 catches for 76 yards and Smoke Harris 4 for 45 yards and two scores.

Marquis Crosby led the Tech rushing attack with 75 yards on 14 carries.

Jaiden Cole (11 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack), BeeJay Williamson (10 tackles), Tyler Grubbs (9 tackles, 1.5 TFL), Cecil Singleton (six tackles, interception), Willie Roberts (interception) and Brooks (interception, TD) led the Bulldogs’ defense.

UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison completed just 23-of-51 passes for 320 yards and two scores with three interceptions.

Tech returns to action Saturday when it travels to North Texas for a 3 p.m. kickoff at Apogee Stadium in Denton.