A pair of surprising postseason participants will get the post-Christmas bowl action going when Illinois and Louisiana Tech meet up in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. After each program won just four games in 2013, neither the Fighting Illini nor the Bulldogs were picked by many to earn a bowl invite this fall. Now they have an opportunity to cap off successful seasons with a win in the historic Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
For Illinois (6-6) head coach Tim Beckman, the bowl game will hopefully serve as a springboard for even better things in 2015. After going 6-18 with just one Big Ten win (1-15) in his first two seasons in Champaign, Beckman entered this fall squarely on the hot seat.
The Illini struggled to open up conference play, losing their first three, but rebounded to post three victories in their final five Big Ten games. More importantly, a 47-43 win in Northwestern on Nov. 29 gave Illinois that critical sixth victory.
As a result, Beckman has Illinois in a bowl game for the first time since it beat UCLA 20-14 in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
That’s also the last season Louisiana Tech (8-5) was in a bowl game, losing 31-24 to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Bulldogs actually went 9-3 in 2012 under Sonny Dykes, but wound up not playing in a bowl after initially declining an invitation from the Independence Bowl before being left out of the mix altogether.
Dykes left to become California’s new head coach just two days after the bowl fiasco. Skip Holtz replaced Dykes and Louisiana Tech stumbled to a 4-8 record last season. Holtz has turned things around this season, winning eight games and Conference USA’s West Division.
The Bulldogs came up short against Marshall in the C-USA Conference Championship Game, but still have a shot at nine wins. That’s something that’s been accomplished by this program just twice over the past 30 seasons.
This will be the second time these two schools have met. Louisiana Tech beat Illinois 52-24 in Champaign back on Sept. 22, 2012. It was the fourth game in Beckman’s tenure with the Fighting Illini.
Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisiana Tech -6
Illinois’ Key to Victory: Get Wes Lunt Going
Big things were expected of Oklahoma transfer Wes Lunt entering his first season as the Fighting Illini’s starting quarterback. The sophomore got off to a great start, leading Illinois to a 3-1 record in non-conference play before injuries derailed his season. Lunt has played in just three of the past eight games due to a leg injury, and the Illini’s offense has suffered. For the season, Lunt has 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, compared to backup Reilly O’Toole’s nine scoring strikes and seven picks. All six of Illinois’ most productive offensive games (yardage-wise) have been in ones Lunt has started, with an average of 444 total yards per game. Also, in the six games Lunt finished (replaced by O’Toole in the Jan. 22 win over Penn State), he averaged 313.8 passing yards per game. Considering the Illini are ranked near the bottom nationally in rushing offense (117.1 ypg, 3.7 ypc), they need to get the most out of their passing game. Lunt hasn’t played since Nov. 22, so hopefully the month off will be all the time he needs to get back to full strength and get his game back to where it was in September.
Louisiana Tech’s Key to Victory: Apply Heavy Dose of Kenneth Dixon
Dixon, a junior, leads the Bulldogs with 1,236 rushing yards while his 21 rushing touchdowns have him tied for fifth among FBS players. Over three seasons, Dixon has averaged 5.7 yards per carry with 59 total touchdowns (52 rushing). Louisiana Tech has a fairly productive passing attack (252.6 ypg, 29 TDs, 3 INTs), but the weak spot on Illinois’ defense this season has been stopping the run. The Fighting Illini are 123rd out of 128 FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing nearly 250 yards on the ground per game. Opponents are averaging 5.1 yards per carry and have scored 28 rushing touchdowns. Five teams (all from the Big Ten) have run for at least 296 yards against Illinois, including 458 by Nebraska. Dixon may not be as feared as the Cornhuskers’ Ameer Abdullah (208 yards, 3 TDs vs. Illinois) or Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon (175, 4), but he’s gotten the job done for the Bulldogs for three seasons. Louisiana Tech would be wise to give the ball to Dixon and see what he can do against one of the nation’s worst rushing defenses.
Tim Beckman got Illinois back to a bowl game, but barely. The Fighting Illini needed to win their last two games just to get bowl eligible. This team still has its share of holes, especially when it comes to defending the run. Louisiana Tech won eight games in the regular season, but also lost to FCS member Northwestern State and in overtime to Old Dominion. The Bulldogs came up short versus Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game, but they more than held their own against a team that has lost just once. Louisiana Tech’s defense has shown remarkable improvement under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, and Skip Holtz’ team can do some damage on offense as well. Beckman may finally have Illinois going in the right direction, but I don’t think his Fighting Illini will be able to hang with a deeper, more balanced Bulldogs squad.