Playing a season opener is always a tough and intriguing situation for a football coach.
But playing against a team that has a head coach nicknamed “The Mad Scientist might be even tougher.
That’s the test Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz faces this weekend as his Bulldogs kick off the 2021 season against Mike Leach’s Mississippi State squad at 3 p.m. Saturday in Starkville, Mississippi.
Holtz admits trying to prepare for a Leach-coached team isn’t an easy task.
“It’s hard to simulate,” Holtz said of preparing his defensive secondary for Leach’s run and gun style of offensive attack. “It’s very hard to simulate. We’ve tried for most of camp to have what we call a fast start period where it’s all tempo plays going as quick as you can getting acclimated to the speed when people try and tempo you so it’s not the first time our defense has seen it. Now, saying that, it’s very hard for 60 minutes to go out there and duplicate the explosiveness and the experience this football team has. They have seven returning starters. (Their) quarterback’s back. Both their running backs are back. One of them was their leading receiver. You’ve got a captain receiver back who is their punt returner. You have a receiver back who is averaging 14 yards a catch. You have a great center. A great left tackle. They have a really talented football team and a very explosive team offensively. You look at what they did in the opening game a year ago when they lined up against LSU and put up 44 points. It is an explosive team with a lot of experience.”
Holtz admits the spectre of COVID-ravaged 2020 season adds to the uncertainty of what to expect.
“We went through last year without spring ball and without fall camp, they were in the same boat as a new coach coming in trying to put in a new system,” Holtz zaid. “Getting new quarterbacks ready. Not having spring ball, having a very limited fall camp and having COVID issues with guys in or out. Everybody dealt with the same problems. As excited as I am to go into a season feeling like you have a football team that is actually prepared this year where a year ago I felt like I had no idea what to expect in the opening game with the limited practice time and so many new faces.
“I’m sure Mississippi State feels the same way. They feel much more prepared this year going in than they did a year ago. Being in year two and everybody being in their system is going to be hard. We’ve done the best job we can to get our defense prepared for what’s coming at them. We have to keep that ball in front of us, rally on it, break on it and make them snap it again.”
Tech will start transfer quarterback Austin Kendall, adding still more uncertainty for Holtz.
“Play within yourself and go do what you do,” Holtz said of what he’s told Kendall heading into the opener. “Do what he’s done in practice. He’s focused. He’s done a great job. Both Kellton Hollins and him are two guys who got here in the summer. Both of them were in the top five of our captain voting. They’ve both done a great job. My message to Austin is going to be ‘just go play football.’ Play within yourself. Don’t try to do too much.
“I always use the expression, players make fun of me all the time, just pick the ball up and throw it to first. We don’t need to try and turn two with nobody on base. Let’s just play within the system and do what he does. I’m excited to watch him play. He has a year of experience under his belt in the Big 12. I don’t think he’s going to be overly anxious or nervous. He’s been in that situation before. I just need him to go out, play within the system, play smart, protect the ball and he’ll be really good.”
Still another unknown for Holtz is how his Bulldogs will handle many wild fans in the stands after playing to diminshed-sized crowds last year.
“It will be an adjustment,” Holtz said. “I’m excited about having full stadiums and the pageantry and the enthusiasm and the circus around college football that the fan support creates. We have the opportunity to come home three times in the month of September. To have the student body there on the visiting sideline and a packed Joe Aillet Stadium. I’m excited about it. Being on the road will be no different. It’s going to be a challenge.
“We’ve been working our crowd noise cadence to make sure we could go out and execute if noise becomes an issue, as I’m sure it will be in a SEC venue on the road against a quality opponent. We’re prepared for crowd noise which is something we did not have to do a year ago, so it’s new to a lot of these players but they picked it up really well as we started doing it earlier this week and spent the whole week adjusting to crowd noise.”