Louisiana Tech and Arkansas State will help kick off the 2015-16 bowl season on Saturday from New Orleans in the 15th edition of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. And while both schools have histories that span two conferences — the Southland and Big West — they haven’t met since 1998, when Louisiana Tech steamrolled ASU 69-21. Saturday’s meeting will be the 38th encounter with Louisiana Tech holding a 25-12 advantage.
Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State surges into this game winners of eight in a row. The Red Wolves’ last loss came against Toledo on Sept. 26. Arkansas State dismantled Texas State 55-17 on Dec. 5 to claim the Sun Belt title in what was the team’s third consecutive 50-plus point effort. The win cemented an undefeated conference record for head coach Blake Anderson’s team. The Red Wolves were among those teams receiving votes in the Dec. 6 AP Top 25 Poll and also got six votes in the Week 15 USA Today Coaches Poll. Arkansas State is the only program in FBS with four conference titles in the past five seasons.
For the first time since 1977-78, Louisiana Tech is headed to consecutive bowl games. The Bulldogs land in New Orleans on the arm of senior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has helped lead the team to an 8-4 record. Louisiana Tech ended its regular season with a 58-24 loss to rival Southern Miss and head coach Skip Holtz will look to end his third season leading the Bulldogs on a winning note.
Arkansas State vs. Louisiana Tech (New Orleans)
Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Louisiana Tech -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Louisiana Tech Quarterback Jeff Driskel
Saturday marks the second time that Driskel will play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The first-year Bulldog quarterback and Florida transfer went head-to-head against current Minnesota Vikings and former Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, in which the Cardinals beat the Gators 33-23.
Following a tumultuous career in Gainesville, Driskel has thrived as Louisiana Tech’s leading man. And after 12 games this season, he’s already eclipsed his career passing stats from his time as a Gator. The Oviedo, Fla., native has thrown for 3,575 yards and 24 touchdowns against eight picks this year. He’s connected on 61.9 percent of his passes and is averaging 8.7 yards per attempt.
The Senior Bowl invitee and 2015 Conference USA Newcomer of the Year also ranks second on the team in rushing with 307 yards and five touchdowns.
2. Arkansas State Quarterback Fredi Kinghten
Driskel won’t be the only quarterback in the spotlight on Saturday. Knighten, a second-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection is a perfect 7-0 since returning to the Red Wolves’ lineup in mid-October. Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Blake Baker served as Arkansas State’s safeties coach in 2013, and he and his unit will be tasked with preventing Knighten from replicating his 2015 GoDaddy Bowl performance where he shelled Toledo’s defense for 403 yards and five touchdowns.
The Bulldogs rank 111th in passing defense, yielding 265.8 yards per game through the air. Knighten tossed back-to-back 300-yard games against ULM (Nov. 14) and New Mexico State (Nov. 28), and threw for 192 in the finale against Texas State.
Additionally, Knighten gives Arkansas State a true dual-threat option. Although he’s rushed for just 358 yards and four touchdowns this year, he scampered for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014. If head coach Blake Anderson will give his senior quarterback the green light to run wild in the bowl game, the Louisiana Tech defense could be in for a long night.
3. Arkansas State’s Disruptive Defense
Statistically, no defense in the nation is more opportunistic than Arkansas State’s. The Red Wolves enter the New Orleans Bowl having forced 34 turnovers — 26 interceptions and eight fumbles — through 12 games. San Diego State’s 31 turnovers rank second.
Red Wolves senior defensive back Rocky Hayes will give Driskel and Louisiana Tech’s passing attack a tough test, while sophomore Ja'Von Rolland-Jones will attempt to be a force at the line of scrimmage. Rolland-Jones, a first team All-Sun Belt Conference selection, leads the conference in sacks with nine, while his 0.8 sacks per game rank second in the nation among all active players.
If there’s one thing this game is sure to produce, it is points. Louisiana Tech is among the top 20 teams nationally in scoring offense, while Arkansas State checks in at No. 10. The Red Wolves head into bowl season as one of the country’s hottest teams, winners of eight in a row, and have eclipsed the 500-yard mark six times this season.
Louisiana Tech, still reeling from its 58-24 Nov. 28 loss to Southern Miss, owns a nine-game winning streak against Sun Belt opponents. The Bulldogs have the firepower to make Arkansas State its 10th victim. Louisiana Tech has scored 441 points — already good for the fourth most in school history. Jeff Driskel’s 297.9 passing yards per game place him 15th nationally, while senior running back Kenneth Dixon has rushed for 968 yards and 17 touchdowns. Dixon will join Driskel in Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl.
With usual New Orleans Bowl fixture Louisiana-Lafayette staying home for the holidays, a national audience will get the chance to look at two high-flying offenses that will make for exciting viewing. Arkansas State’s carnivorous defense should prove to be the difference and help the Red Wolves earn their second bowl win in three seasons.
Prediction: Arkansas State 34, Louisiana Tech 31
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.