Louisiana Tech capitalizes on turnovers, defeats Illinois 35-18 in Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.

(DALLAS, TEX.) – It took the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs just one half to set the tone, defeating the University of Illinois Fighting Illini 35-18 in front of 31,297 fans at the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl on the grounds of historic Cotton Bowl Stadium.

The game got off to a sluggish start, with three penalties committed in the first quarter alone.

One of the high points in the half was when Bulldog junior running back Kenneth Dixon broke free on a 28-yard run with 08:49 remaining in the first quarter. With that run, Dixon would become the schools leading rusher

Dixon finished the game with 13 rushes for 63 yards, finishing with a career total of 3,410 yards, and 29 touchdowns. He also made the announcement at the post-game conference that he will be returning to the Bulldogs next season. Head coach Skip Holtz was smiling from ear to ear.

“Just going through the journey, thankful for having the chance to play the game of college football. And I don’t want to give it up right now, with Coach Holtz being a great example for us on and off the field,” Dixon said.

The Bulldogs would sustain the drive, and score to take a 7-0 lead with 07:29 remaining in the first quarter. Freshman running back Jared Craft scored on a 16-yard run, to cap a six play, 63-yard drive that took just 01:26 seconds off the clock.

The Illini would answer back with a eight play, 64-yard drive that would result in a field goal. Freshman receiver Mike Dudek had a big part in the drive, accounting for 61 of the team’s 63 total yards.

Bulldogs defensive end Houston Bates, who was voted Heart of Dallas Bowl MVP, sacked Illini senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole on a key 3rd-and-16, forcing Illini senior kicker Taylor Zalewski to connect on a 27-yard field goal, with 03:46 remaining in the first quarter, making the score 7-3 in favor of the Bulldogs.

Bates would finish the game with 4.5 sacks, extending his sack streak to eight games, and also setting a Cotton Bowl record for Most Tackles For Loss in a game (6.5). He also set a NCAA record for most Tackles for loss in a bowl game. Bulldogs Head Coach Skip Holtz could not stop praising Bates on having a fairytale end to his collegiate career. Bates was a transfer student from Illinois, and is friends with many of the players on the Illini roster.

“Houston Bates, one of those new faces that came in, was absolutely awesome,” Holtz said. “He ended up with four and half sacks, would have had five and half if Michael Shrank would have got off the field a little bit quicker, one of his best friends, so he took that away from him,” Holtz said.

On their next possession, the Bulldogs would answer, scoring on the very first play of their possession. With 03:40 left in the first quarter,senior quarterback Cody Sokol would connect on an 80 yard pass to Dixon, all in thanks to a blown assignment by the Illini. The play took just 12 seconds, making it the fastest scoring drive in the history of the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The Bulldogs would begin to separate from the Illini with a 14-3 lead. Sokol finished the game, going 114-for-28, with one touchdown.

“They hit us with some long opportunistic plays, getting the ball to the two guys they wanted to get the ball to and, you know, we just got to be able to stop those better,” Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said.

Zelewski would miss his next field goal attempt of 42 yards with 13:44 remaining in the second quarter, but the Illini would responded later in the second quarter with a five play, 65-yard scoring drive. With 11:15 remaining in the second quarter, O’Toole hit senior tight end Jon Davis on a 25 yard touchdown strike, that would it a 9-14 game in favor of the Bulldogs. Kicker Zalewski would miss his XP attempt. O’Toole finished the game 24-for-39, wiith 295 yards passing, and one touchdown. Holtz admired the play of O’Toole.

“I thought their quarterback played a good game, he took a beating back there, and competed like crazy,” Holtz said.

The Illini and the Bulldogs would exchange drives through the second quarter. The Bulldogs next drive stalled after Sokol failed to connect to Henderson on a 3rd-and-10 on their own 27 yd line. Punter Logan McPherson sent a 42-yard punt to the Illinois 30 yard line.

With 07:36 remaining in the second quarter, Bulldogs sophomore defensive back Xavier Rhodes would get his sixth int of the season, and take it to the house for 63 yards touchdown return. Freshman kicker Johnathan Barnes would convert the XP attempt to make it a 21-9 game in favor of the Bulldogs with 07:20 remaining in the second quarter. To Rhodes, the touchdown was a team effort.

“I just wanted to make a big play for my team at that moment,” Rhodes said. “My linebackers and defensive line made it happen, and picked up blocks. So since I had the ball, I tried to score.”

The Bulldogs scored 14 points off of turnovers, which was just six tenths of a point off of their season average, which leads the NCAA.

The Bulldogs would maintain their 21-9 over the Illini at the half, but the Illini would keep it a close game second half, however, they failed to capitalize of many of their opportunities, including a two point conversion attempt that would have cut the margin to six points in the third quarter. By this point, the big plays were starting to catch up to the Illini.

“I think they’ve been very, very opportunistic in what they’ve done this year. I think that’s the mark of a pretty darn good football team,” Beckman said. “I know that I’ve been, you know, involved in some defenses where we were very, very aggressive and made plays like they did. We need to become that better on our defense.”

The Illini would be the first to score in the third quarter. Senior running back Donovonn Young would score on a three yard run at the end of an Illini nine play, 72-yard drive that ate up 04:17 off of the clock, pulling to within six points of the Bulldogs.

The Illini would later cut the deficit to three points in the fourth quarter, when O’Toole took the team on a 10-play, 49 yard drive that would result in a 43-yard field goal by sophomore kicker David Reisner with 14:01 remaining in the game. Three points would be as close as the Illini could get to the Bulldogs. Louisiana Tech would go on to score 14 unanswered points behind the legs of Dixon, and junior running Blake Martin, but not before the Bulldogs would make one more key play to define the game.

The Illini had a chance late in the game, when sophomore linebacker LaKeith Walls forced a fumble, that was returned 19 yards by junior defensive lineman Jihad Ward, only to give the ball back to the Bulldogs, when Dixon switched to defense, and forced Ward to fumble, giving the Bulldogs a new set of downs. Beckman knew the game was out of their hands.

“it was misfortunate… I think‑‑our kids believe there were opportunities and we didn’t make that play. We tried to save the clock as much as we could after that, of course, but we had a missed assignment on the touchdown they had, but the long catch really ended up, you know, taking the wind out of the sails.”

Ward, who played a solid game in the trenches, finishing with three tackles (1.0 TFL), and one fumble recovery; He also contributed to key play that gave momentum to the Bulldogs.

“It was emotional, but for the seniors, I’m proud of them, and I love them,” Ward said.

Ward wasn’t down on himself. He looked forward to the future, and the opportunity to lead the Illini team next season.

“I see myself being a leader. We just have to keep driving. We have to learn from what we did this season, and just go at it,” Ward said. “I’m proud of everybody. Everybody fought together. I just can’t wait for next season and everything is going to be alright.”

The Bulldogs would go on a five-play, 84-yard drive, and Dixon would secure the game for Tech, with a one yard TD run. Holtz knew that the game wouldn’t be pretty, but he was happy that his team came out with the win.

“We said it last night, we’re not going to play perfect, but we’re going to play for sixty minutes and we are going to continue to compete. And I thought that’s what this football team did.”