Heart of Dallas Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

Phil Callihan@umgoblogContributor IDecember 8, 2014

Heart of Dallas Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

0 of 7

    Quarterback Wes Lunt
    Quarterback Wes LuntAssociated Press

    Illinois (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) will face Louisiana Tech (8-5, 7-2 Conference USA) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Friday, December 26.

    Illinois won its last two game of the season to become bowl-eligible, while Louisiana Tech lost 26-23 to Marshall in the Conference USA title game.

    This game will mark each team’s first bowl appearance since 2011.

    Date: Friday, December 26, 2014

    Time: 1 p.m. ET

    Place: Cotton Bowl Stadium (92,100), Dallas, Texas

    Television: ESPN

    Radio: The Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl network coordinated by RedVoice LLC.

    Spread: TBD via Odds Shark

    Last Meeting: Louisiana Tech and Illinois last played in 2012 when the Bulldogs went to Champaign and took home a 52-24 win.

Tale of the Tape

1 of 7

    This interactive graphic shows that Illinois and Louisiana Tech are well-matched opponents. Can a mediocre Big Ten team handle a top Conference USA opponent?

Illinois Keys to Victory

2 of 7

    BRADLEY LEEB/Associated Press

    Don’t Take the Game for Granted

    Illinois had to win its last two games to be bowl-eligible and then had to wait on a bowl invitation. Now that the bid has been secured, the team can’t take its opponent lightly.

    Louisiana Tech may not be a glamorous opponent, but a loss would drop the Illini below .500 for the season and leave a bitter taste after battling back to make a bowl.

    Build for Next Season

    After beating Penn State (16-14) and Northwestern (47-33), head coach Tim Beckman may be finally turning things around for Illinois. The extra practices and exposure should help move his program in the right direction.

    He really needs to improve his Big Ten record next season, and a solid bowl performance would help set the stage.

Louisiana Tech Keys to Victory

3 of 7

    Chris Tilley/Associated Press

    Don’t Let the Marshall Loss Linger

    Louisiana Tech very nearly upset Marshall in the Conference USA title game. Some disappointment is understandable, but the team has to move on and prepare for Illinois. A victory over a Big Ten opponent would validate head coach Skip Holtz’s progress and be a great tool for recruiting.

    Score

    Louisiana Tech can put up points. The key to beating Illinois is to score early and often and make the game a shootout.

    The Illini may try to work quarterback Wes Lunt back into the offense after missing time because of an injury. Putting some points on early could ratchet up the pressure before the Illini get back on track offensively.

Illinois Players to Watch

4 of 7

    No. 18 Mike Dudek
    No. 18 Mike DudekBRADLEY LEEB/Associated Press

    Running Back Josh Ferguson

    Ferguson—139 carries for 685 yards and eight touchdowns—leads the Illini rushing attack. With uncertainty at the quarterback position because of an injury, the running game takes on increased importance versus Louisiana Tech, and Ferguson is the key controlling the clock and slowing the game down.

    Wide Receiver Mike Dudek

    Dudek—69 receptions for 965 yards and six touchdowns—will be the main target in the passing game no matter who plays quarterback.

    Quarterback Wes Lunt

    Lunt was lighting things up before breaking his leg versus Purdue earlier in the season. He came back but struggled to pick up where he left off. The extra bowl practices should help him work his way back into game shape.

Louisiana Tech Players to Watch

5 of 7

    No. 28 Kenneth Dixon
    No. 28 Kenneth DixonRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Running Back Kenneth Dixon

    Dixon, who has totaled 240 carries for 1236 yards and 21 touchdowns, is the primary force on the Louisiana Tech running attack. Illinois will need to shut him down and force the Bulldogs to become one-dimensional on offense.

    Quarterback Cody Sokol

    Sokol (246-of-420 passing for 3,189 yards and 29 touchdowns) has had a banner year and is looking to carve up a Big Ten opponent. Sokol has shown that he can put up points, but the Illini will be a major challenge.

What They’re Saying

6 of 7

    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Illinois head coach Tim Beckman praised his team and the senior leaders, via a press release on FightingIllini.com:

    I couldn't be more excited or proud of our football team for what they accomplished to earn the invitation to the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl. Our seniors did an outstanding job of leading our team through a challenging schedule, and never quit. We are looking forward to facing an explosive Louisiana Tech team on December 26. It's a great reward for all the hard work this Fighting Illini football team put in over the last year. I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of Orange and Blue at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

    Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz talks about playing a Big Ten team in Dallas, per TheNewsStar.com:

    When you start talking about the opportunity to play a Big Ten team, you want a chance at a bowl game to go kind of validate what you've accomplished this season. It's not just about going to win, but it's about playing the best quality opponent you can.

    [...]

    It's a great reward for this football team and the things they've been able to accomplish this year. But also to be in Dallas where our fans, our alumni — we've got a great base in that Dallas area ... it's really special for us.

    [...]

    You're talking about the opportunity to get 12 or 13 practices from now until the bowl game. Those are practices a lot of those redshirt freshmen need and some of the guys we're going to need to step up next season.

Prediction

7 of 7

    Chris Tilley/Associated Press

    Conference USA triumphs over the Big Ten, and the Bulldogs announce their presence on the national stage.

    Louisiana Tech 34, Illinois 20