Both sides seeking improvement, success as NSU, Louisiana Tech renew old rivalry

TECH TARGET:  Tight end Nate Jones is one of the Bulldogs’ underutilized offensive assets. (Photo by JOSH MCDANIEL, Louisiana Tech)


RUSTON – Just because football teams at Northwestern State and Louisiana Tech no longer meet often, let alone every year, it does not mean the once-fierce rivalry, which renews this evening at 6 p.m. at Joe Aillet Stadium, does not resonate on both sides.

When Northwestern State (0-1) tangles with the Bulldogs (1-1) for the first time since 2017, it will mark a return to a place that helped form a trio of Demons’ players and a pair of coaches. And there are plenty of Tech players who lined up alongside, or across from, counterparts from Northwestern.

“There are a lot of kids on their team that know our kids. Anytime you have an in-state rivalry, in particular Louisiana it takes on another meaning because of the passion and culture of this state,” said Bulldogs’ second-year coach Sonny Cumbie, a native Texan, “the passion the high school players have in this state for their schools and also what football means to all of us here.”

Nobody has more cross-reference than Demons’ head coach Brad Laird, who quarterbacked Ruston High School to a 1990 state championship and the No. 1 ranking in USA Today’s national high school football poll.

Laird grew up attending the Northwestern-Tech State Fair Classic in Shreveport as the son of former NSU and Louisiana Tech assistant coach Billy Laird before quarterbacking the Demons in their 1994 visit to Ruston.

“(At) high school in Ruston, you walk across the street and there’s Louisiana Tech,” Laird said. “I had the opportunity to go back and coach at Ruston (from 2013-16). I was able to watch Tech practice and go with their staff (under Skip Holtz). We had some of their sons on the team at Ruston High.

“Go back further to when it was the State Fair Classic. That’s the thing I most remember – not as much the game as the fair when I was young – but the rivalry Northwestern State and Louisiana Tech had for so many years. When the State Fair Classic ended, we went through a time where we didn’t play. There are two or three times Northwestern has (since) played at Louisiana Tech. It will be a good environment.”

Laird’s time at Ruston High as both a coach and player predated that of current Demon players Jordan McClaine, a sophomore offensive lineman, and true freshman defensive lineman Christian Davis, who made his collegiate debut at UL Lafayette a week ago in a 38-13 loss.

For the Demons’ Ruston contingent, which also includes Louisiana Tech transfer offensive lineman Stevie Ballard and former Louisiana Tech assistant and current NSU cornerbacks coach Perry Carter, going home may bring a sense of familiarity.

“I’ve been looking forward to playing Tech,” Davis said. “I miss home. Hopefully, I’ll see some of my coaches like (RHS head) coach (Jerrod) Baugh. I’ll probably have some teammates come by.”

In the same way Davis is settling into his new surroundings, the Demon defense is doing the same.

NSU allowed 429 yards in the season opener at UL Lafayette, but 190 of those came on the Cajuns’ five touchdowns. Across the other 61 snaps, the Demons limited the Cajuns to 3.93 yards per play.

Perhaps most importantly, NSU forced three turnovers and were plus-2 in turnover margin. This came after a 2022 season in which the Demons collected 11 turnovers while finishing last nationally in the FCS with a minus-18 turnover margin.

“You were able to see, in all three phases, things we can take from Game 1 and carry over to the rest of the season that will help this football team be successful,” Laird said. “One was turnover margin. That’s one we talked about for a while and have talked about for a while.”

That NSU defense will try to create mistakes from a Louisiana Tech offense that was shut out in the first half last week.

The Bulldogs are seeking an offensive eruption after limited production in the first two games, the last-minute homefield win over Florida International and last Saturday’s 38-14 loss at SMU. Boise State transfer quarterback Hank Bachmeier has a great completion rate, hitting 55 of his 77 passing attempts for 574 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. His 574 passing yards rank third nationally, but Tech has not sustained many drives so far.

“Getting easy completions for Hank and getting first downs is the big thing,” said Cumbie. “When you fall behind there is a tendency to try to score 17 points in one play. You have to think about getting the next first down one play at a time which allows us to get into a rhythm. Playing with some tempo would help as well. The biggest thing for us to get in a rhythm is to get completions and have efficient run plays on first down so we are not in second and long situations.”

Senior receiver/returner Smoke Harris is the Bulldogs’ most dangerous weapon on offense. He has tallied a reception in each of the past 34 games, which is the sixth-longest active streak among all FBS players. He ranks among the FBS active career leaders in receptions (2nd, 242), all-purpose yards (2nd, 3,920), kick return yards (3rd, 1,525), punt return yards (4th, 616) and receiving touchdowns (5th, 20).

Harris has tallied 18 receptions for 202 yards and a touchdown this season.