ZAXBY’S HEART OF DALLAS BOWL STORYLINES
1. One of the many setbacks during Illinois coach Tim Beckman’s first year on the job was a blowout loss to Louisiana Tech. With an eye on their first winning season under his watch, the Illini look to avenge that defeat versus the Bulldogs in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. Little went right for Beckman’s 2-10 squad in 2012, but perhaps no game encapsulated the season more than when Illinois committed six turnovers in a 52-24 home loss to the Bulldogs, which began a season-ending nine-game skid.
2. Few players in the country can match the production of Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon, who has scored in a FBS-high 12 consecutive games and posted a Conference USA-best 26 total touchdowns this season. The junior running back is the only player in the country with an 80-plus yard TD run and catch in 2014 and has 59 career scores from scrimmage (tied for 19th-best in FBS history). Dixon, who has run for 3,347 yards in his career, is also six yards shy of becoming the program’s all-time leading rusher.
3. The Illini’s Mike Dudek, who leads all FBS freshman in receiving yards (80.4), was the Big Ten’s top receiver in conference play, posting 50 catches for 716 yards. The second-team all-conference selection set Illinois’ freshman records for receptions (69) and receiving yards (965) while tying the touchdown mark (six) set by College Football Hall of Famer David Williams. Dudek is trying to become the eighth player in school history with 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
TV: 1 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Louisiana Tech -6
ABOUT ILLINOIS (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten): While the Illini ranked 112th in scoring defense (33.9 points per game) and 105th in total defense among the 125 FBS teams, they proved to be opportunistic in their three league wins, recording 10 of their 18 takeaways and two of their four defensive scores. “If you look at the three wins, we played very good defense. Honestly, those three games were won because of our defense,” Beckman told The Daily Illini. Junior cornerback V'Angelo Bentley, who sealed a 28-24 victory over Minnesota with a fumble return for a touchdown, is the only player in school history to return a kickoff, punt, interception and fumble for a score in his career.
ABOUT LOUISIANA TECH (8-5, 7-1 C-USA): Although the Bulldogs committed the second-most giveaways in their conference (25), they made up for it by forcing the most takeaways in the country (40), which led to a FBS-high 164 points off turnovers. Louisiana Tech recorded at least three takeaways in each of its final five regular-seasons contests and has collected multiple turnovers in all but one of its last 15 games dating back to last season. Some of the chaos the Bulldogs created on defense can be attributed to former Illini defensive end Houston Bates, who led the team with 12 quarterback hurries and earned a second-team all-conference nod.
PREDICTION: Louisiana Tech 45, Illinois 31