NEW ORLEANS — Players from major schools routinely talk about choosing those universities for the opportunity to play in the biggest games.
Louisiana Tech senior safety Chad Boyd didn’t get that opportunity. His other FBS offers when he was a senior at Shaw were from Tulsa, Northern Illinois and Tulane.
But Saturday, Boyd and his teammates can say they’re in arguably the biggest game in the school’s football history. The undefeated, 23rd-ranked Bulldogs (5-0) are meeting No. 22 Texas A&M (4-1) Saturday night at Shreveport’s Independence Stadium.
It was to have been the opener for both teams but was postponed because of the threat of Hurricane Isaac.
But that’s just increased tonight’s magnitude, especially for Tech.
Win, and the Bulldogs — nationally ranked for the first time since 1999 and, thanks to LSU’s loss at Florida, on the nation’s longest regular-season winning streak at 12 — are on track to be a BCS buster with a likely berth in the Sugar Bowl awaiting if they can run through their WAC schedule as they have their first five opponents, including road victories at Illinois and Virginia.
No previous BCS buster has won more than two games against teams from the six AQ conferences, although Fresno State did beat Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin in 2001 before losing to Boise State for the WAC title.
Lose, and even if Tech runs the table to win the WAC, it’s a probable trip to Boise, Idaho, for the Famous Potatoes Bowl, the only one guaranteed to the champion of a league which is dissolving after this season.
“Everybody knows what this game can do for this program and this school,” Boyd said. “I know this is the biggest game I’ve ever played in.
“But we know we’ve just got to take it one play at a time, one quarter at a time and one game at a time. If we play hard and follow our game plan, then we believe we can come out with the victory.”
Along with getting himself ready for Saturday, Boyd has been helping his younger teammates stay on the right mental track this week.
It’s a responsibility he developed during spring practice when he was out with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and so served as an unofficial student coach to other DBs.
“I enjoy helping the other guys know their assignments,” said Boyd, who aspires to be a coach on the high school or college level, although draft projections show him with a decent chance to continue playing at the next level. “I’m rotating through strong, free and the nickel back right now, so I’m able to help everyone know their right reads and to stay focused on getting ready.
“It’s going to be a dogfight for four quarters.”
Indeed, it should be.
The Aggies, who haven’t lost since blowing a fourth-quarter lead against Florida in their opener, are ranked eighth nationally in scoring at 44.8 points per game.
They’re getting outstanding play from dual-threat quarterback Johnny Manziel, a redshirt freshman. In last week’s 30-27 come-from-behind victory at Ole Miss, Manziel ran 29 yards for a touchdown and threw a 20-yard pass for the game-winner.
Manziel is ranked 12th nationally in passing efficiency while also being A&M’s top rusher at 495 yards with seven TDs.
“They’ve got some great receivers and a quarterback who knows exactly what to do,” Boyd said. “He’s very deceptive, and you’ve really got to be reading your keys or he will burn you. I think going against an offense like this has helped us focus on the game and not worry as much about all of the outside stuff.”
Tech’s defense is only 109th nationally in points allowed (35.8), but it helps that offensively the Bulldogs are one of the nation’s most prolific teams, scoring 53.2 points per game, third-best in the country.
“They’re a hard-working group that can score at any given moment,” Boyd said. “But sometimes that’s bad for the defense, because it seems like we’re on the bench for about 10 seconds then have to get back out there again.”
Boyd has admittedly struggled somewhat this season. The team’s top returning tackler with 156 stops last season and current career interception leader with seven, this year Boyd is ninth in tackles with 26 and has no interceptions with four passes defended.
“I’ve had some plays I should have made,” he said. “I pride myself on being a good tackler, and I’ve let some slip away.
“I’ve got only seven more games to improve. But I’m not worried so much about myself as what I can do to for this to be a successful season for my team.”
That, Tech coach Sonny Dykes said, is what makes Boyd, a three-year starter and second-team All-WAC selection last season, a valuable member of the team.
“You know what you’re going to get with Chad,” he said. “He comes out every day, practicing hard and playing hard.
“You know he’s going to be consistent and a good leader. He’s our team captain, which shows the respect the other players have for him.”
And for that reason, Boyd is stoked about Saturday night’s game, even more, he said, than the one at LSU when he was a freshman and the Bulldogs gave the ninth-ranked Tigers all they could handle before losing 24-16.
“I was just a freshman, and we weren’t having a very good season (4-8),” Boyd said. “We probably didn’t think we had much of a chance that night, but it turned out we did.
“Now, we’ve got the confidence we can play ball with anybody.”
That loss to LSU was one of 13 straight for Tech against ranked teams. Also, the Bulldogs are 0-11 lifetime against the Aggies, including a 48-16 loss in 2010.
Moreover, Dykes acknowledged that none of his players were offered by the Aggies, although the two schools routinely recruit the same area, just at different levels.
“They’re usually done by the time we get started,” Dykes said.
But that doesn’t diminish the Bulldogs’ confidence.
“We’ve worked so hard to put ourselves in this position,” Boyd said. “We know the kind of team we have and we knew that one day this opportunity would come.
“We’re not worried about who they have on their team. We’re just worried about doing what we have to do.”
And if the Bulldogs should win and keep on winning afterward, Boyd is allowing himself to dream about finishing the season in the Superdome, where his last three seasons at Shaw ended with losses in Class 4A state championship games.
“We know this game is just one game, and it won’t dictate our whole season,” he said. “Our goal when we started was to win our conference championship and go to a bowl game, and if that was the Sugar Bowl, that would be great.
“People would still be thinking of us as the little underdogs (A&M is an eight-point favorite), but that would be OK.
“We’ll take on anybody.”
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