The muscles in Tim Beckman’s face drew tight; his voice spilled out in a low monotone while he addressed the smattering of reporters. The crestfallen Illinois head coach had just watched a team clad in white jerseys and cherry red helmets – neither Alabama nor Nebraska nor Stanford, one that many in the stands at Memorial Stadium may not have heard of until they glanced at their ticket stubs -- gallop up and down his field for three hours. When it was finished with the sprints, Louisiana Tech had breached those orange-and-white end zones eight times. The Bulldogs left Champaign with a 52-24 win and the respect of a deflated coach.

“We played a good football team,” Beckman said flatly, his words revealing less than his disposition. “I’ve got to give credit to Louisiana Tech.”

Similar, trite utterances have tumbled from the clenched teeth and shaking heads of four other coaches this season. Unheralded Louisiana Tech, last season’s WAC champion, has surged to a 5-0 start this year, knocking off programs from, among others, the Big Ten and ACC by an average margin of 15. The Bulldogs have led by at least 20 points in each contest thanks to an attack that shuns huddles and has roots in the air raid offense crafted by Hal Mumme in Lexington, Ky., and made famous by Mike Leach in Lubbock, Texas.

TEXAS A&M vs. LOUISIANA TECH
 
Total Offense 516.8 523.4
Total Defense 363.6 531.0

The commanding start has pushed the No. 23 Bulldogs into the top 25 for the first time since 1999, when they were banished after a mere week. If they hope to linger among the nation’s elite this year, the Bulldogs will have to topple their toughest opponent of the young season – No. 22 Texas A&M – on Saturday night in Shreveport.

The game was originally set to be played in Week 1, but was preempted as Hurricane Isaac ravaged the region. Bulldog players were disappointed with the delay, as they said dreams of that clash drove them through workouts under the hot Louisiana summer sun. Bulldogs’ third-year head coach Sonny Dykes, though, welcomed the holdup, as it nullified some of the unpredictability of facing A&M’s first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin.   

“We weren’t sure what they were going to do offensively, weren’t sure what they were going to do defensively, how they were going to utilize their personnel, all those different things,” Dykes said. “Now we’ve had five games to look at, evaluate. I think it’s helped us from that standpoint. The negative is that they’ve had five games to get comfortable and get further along.”

The seeds of the undefeated start were planted last year. After beginning last season with four losses in five games, the Bulldogs won their last seven contests of the regular season and came within a touchdown of upsetting TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. Given how brilliantly the team played in the stretch run, players said they’re not surprised with the early season surge and national raking, though their foes seem to have been caught off guard.  

“Being from a smaller conference I don’t think [our opponents] think we have the amount of athletes and talent that we have,” senior Bulldog quarterback Colby Cameron said. “We play as underdogs in all of the games. The teams see the size of us, in general, and probably don’t think we are who we are. It gives us a meaner mentality.”

The program’s newfound success – including 'upset' wins against Illinois, Virginia and Houston – can be traced to Dykes’ hiring in 2010. The coach was poached from Arizona, where, as offensive coordinator, he molded the nation’s 16th-ranked scoring offense in 2008 and was nominated for the Broyles Award – given to the nation’s top assistant coach – the following year.

Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes, like
current West Virginia head coach Dana
Holgorsen, knows how to get the offense in
gear. Dykes and Holgorsen were co-offensive
coordinators at Texas Tech during its
pass-happy years under Mike Leach. Look
at their teams now:
AP Images
  WVU La. Tech
Pass Offense 406.8 291.2
Rush Offense 164.0 232.2
Scoring Offense 52.0 53.2
First Downs 27.4 28.2
Third-Down Conv. 53.5 42.7

 When Dykes arrived, Louisiana Tech had a modicum of young talent, but lacked the requisite upperclassmen needed to succeed, particularly on the offensive line. He sought to remedy that immediately, focusing his recruiting efforts at junior colleges rather than high schools to help fill the leadership void. His second recruiting class included 13 junior college players, 12 of whom play significant roles on this year’s squad, including top receiver Quinton Patton and third-leading pass-catcher Myles White.

“It was a heck of a class for us,” Dykes said. “It gave us some older guys, it gave us some experience and it gave us some ability to fill in some key spots.”

That recruiting class has led the Bulldogs to the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense (53.2 ppg) and 11th-ranked offense overall (523.4 ypg). Given Dykes’ background, those numbers should be no surprise. He was co-offensive coordinator along with current West Virginia head man Dana Holgorsen under Mike Leach when Texas Tech’s pass-happy offense was among the most potent in the nation. Holgorsen’s third-ranked attack has drawn headlines this year, but Dykes’ unheralded, similar scheme has been nearly as effective.

When he arrived at Louisiana Tech, Dykes pulled in Tony Franklin, former offensive coordinator at Auburn and Middle Tennessee State, to add balance to the air raid attack. Franklin was proficient at designing runs in a one-back offense, which blended perfectly with the multi-receiver sets that are the backbone of Dykes’ passing scheme. Rather than throw as much as Leach did, Dykes has balanced the run and pass. So far, the Bulldogs have 217 carries and only 181 pass attempts – a rare ratio for an offense that sprints to the line of scrimmage after every down and is capable of amassing 94 plays in a game, as the Bulldogs did against Houston this season. 

Quarterback Colby Cameron is the fuel for that efficient engine. He has tossed 13 touchdowns and no picks, which stands as the second-most touchdowns thrown without an interception this year, trailing only, no surprise, Holgorsen’s quarterback Geno Smith. Dykes said Cameron is playing with more confidence in his teammates this year, rather than taking risks by trying to win games by himself. The heightened trust has led to a 14-point year-to-year increase in completion percentage and a QB rating that has spiked by 23 points to 160.1, 14th-best in the nation. Cameron credits the innovative, yet simple, scheme for his success.

“It’s so up-tempo, but it’s a real basic offense to where you’re not thinking a whole lot,” he said. “The more basic you keep it, it’s easier, not just for the quarterback, but for the receivers as well.”

This weekend’s contest with A&M will be played in 53,000-seat Independence Stadium in Shreveport – an hour drive from Louisiana Tech’s Ruston, La., campus – to accommodate large contingencies from both schools. Dykes and Cameron, citing more buzz on campus than they’re accustomed to, expect many to make the short trek. The Bulldogs will need a vociferous home crowd if they hope to contend with a team that beat them 48-16 only two years ago.

“The more games you win, the bigger the games become,” Dykes said.

For tiny Ruston, few have been bigger.