Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl Preview

(DALLAS, TEX.) – The final touches took place on the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium today, while members of the media prepared for the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl tomorrow. The ESPN media trucks were up and running, and the P.A. system echoed throughout Fair Park. For both teams, this game will cap a season full of highs and lows, missed opportunities, and overcoming adversity.

For the visiting Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6), who had to fight to get here, it was no easy task. The team beat a ranked opponent, then won two of their last three games just to become bowl eligible.

Head Coach Tim Beckman has continually improved in each of the last thee seasons, and looks to go into the off-season with a winning record for the first time in his tenure, which would be the first time since 2011.

“We are getting there as a team, we’re only losing three guys on defense, and three on offense,” Beckman said. “I think that is very important for these guys to know what it feels like to win the last game of the season.”

For the Louisiana Tech Bullgogs (8-5), They are looking for redemption, after a devastating 26-23 loss to the Marshall Thundering Herd in the last minutes of the Conference USA Championship Game.

It wasn’t a good feeling for the team, or Head Coach Skip Holtz, however, the Bulldogs were preparing for this match-up in Ruston, before making it to Dallas.

Our bowl preparation, we did a large portion of it back at home. We were in school until Friday, had a very physical week last week. Got here yesterday. Practiced yesterday in pads, and then watched the film this morning. And we’re going to go and have the opportunity to practice this afternoon and start to polish some things up to get ready for the bowl game,” Holtz said during Media Day. 

Both coaches know that they have a lot on their plate, as they attempt to stop some powerful offensive attacks. Illini freshman receiver Mike Dudek is averaging over 14 yards a reception, and will pose a big threat for the Bullgogs, Holtz knows that the Illini are going to mix things up offensively.

They are really playing well right now. Bill Cubit, very familiar with him.  Offensive coordinator. Does an awful lot of things to you. I think it will be a great match-up with their offense and our defense with all the different shifting motions and kind of versatility that the offense has,” Holtz said.

Opposite the Illini, Bulldogs junior running back Kenneth Dixon is one of the best in the NCAA, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He has helped carry the load for the Bulldogs this season, and the Illini knows that stopping him is a focal point for the team.

We knew they would be very well‑coached and just comes to the habits when you’ve been around Coach Holtz and the type of team that he has been involved with in his day,” Beckman said.


For the Illini: – The Illini must win time of possession in this game. The Louisiana Tech offense can strike at any given moment, and the Illini will have to rely on the run game to sustain drives. If they can do that and limit turnovers, they will stay in this game.

– Hybrid star linebacker Earnest Thomas III will need to have a perfect game reading the field. His position is very unique in the Illini’s 4-2-5 defensive package. He has had the uncanny ability to diagnose plays this season, earning 93 tackles (9.5 for a loss), 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and an interception in 2014. He will need to play at this level tomorrow.

– It is understood that freshman wide receiver Mike Dudek is the go to guy for the Illini, averaging over 10 receptions per game, but other guys will have to get open. Outside of Dudek (80.4 ypg), no other receiver is averaging more than 50 yards per game. Guys like junior recievers Josh Ferguson, and junior Geronimo Allison are going to have to step up, and make plays. Both are capable, and Allison has the team’s longest receiving touchdown of the season, with a 60 yard touchdown reception on 9/13/14 against Washington. It was breakout game for Allison, that included a six catch, 160 yard receiving campaign, and this ESPN #SCTop10 catch.


For the Bulldogs:

– The Bulldogs will have to play as a unit at the WR position. There have been a few times this season that the passing game has been non-existent for the group, as they have been held to one or fewer receiving touchdowns five times this season. They will need to get open, block well, and support both junior running back Kenneth Dixon, and senior quarterback Cody Sokol.

– The Bulldogs lead the NCAA in forced turnovers (40), and points off of turnovers (162), averaging 12.6 points per game. It has a lot to do with the Bulldogs effective pass rush, that includes Illini transfer Houston Bates. Bates is playing the final game of his career, and is bringing a seven-game sack streak into the game. Bates lead the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks in 2014. He will have to continue this trend.

– There is no doubt that Dixon is a talent in the backfield, but the Bulldogs will have to do more than stretch the field. Yes, the Illini are worst in the Big Ten, allowing over five yards per carry, but team has been able to stop the run when they need to. It will be interesting to see how often the Bulldogs will run up the middle against the Illini. When the Bulldogs played Southern Mississippi on 10/25/14, Dixon was held to just 41 yards on the ground. That did not stop him from gaining 165 yards from scrimmage, and giving the Bulldogs their first win in Hattiesburg since 1982.


Difference Makers:

– This game will be dependent on the play of  Illini quarterback Reilly O’Toole, and Bulldogs running back Kenneth Dixon. Both are talented players, and can make plays. O’Toole already knows what it takes to lead, after stepping up in the middle of the season, after Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt broke his leg halfway through the season. He was able to help the team turn their season around, and he is a big part of why the Illini are in this game.

Big plays are nothing new to Dixon, this two-time All-Conference running back passed Jason Davis with 14 career 100-yard games. Dixon’s 5.3 yards per carry average is stands among the best in the NCAA, and he is just three touchdowns away from breaking his own team record of 28 rushing touchdowns in a season. Dixon is currently third in the nation with 26 touchdowns through 13 games, scoring 156 points for the Bulldogs.

Prediction: The Illini will hang on in the first half, but Louisiana Tech’s high-powered offensive attack will prove to be to much for the Illini. Tech wins 38-27.