The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, it’s the Heart of Dallas Bowl preview.
WHAT: Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl
WHEN: Friday, December 26 – 1:00 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: Cotton Bowl – Dallas, TX
Illinois needed wins in the final two weeks over Penn State and Northwestern to secure bowl eligibility and cool the seat under head coach Tim Beckman. The Fighting Illini delivered, besting the Nittany Lions 16-14 and then earning a 47-33 win over the Wildcats in Evanston. Their best win of the season was a 28-24 win over Minnesota in late October.
For Louisiana Tech, this is only their fourth bowl game in the past 20 years. While the postseason appearance is a big step for the program, the Bulldogs had visions of a high-profile bowl game before their loss in the Conference USA title game. The squad earned victories over five bowl-eligible teams (Louisiana-Lafayette, UTEP, Western Kentucky, Rice and UAB), but the Bulldogs suffered two bad losses to FCS competition: losing by three points to both Northwestern State in September and in overtime to Old Dominion in November.
When Illinois Has the Football
Illinois has struggled at times to move the football. Sophomore Wes Lunt won the starting quarterback job in preseason, but suffered a broken leg against Purdue. The coaching staff turned to senior Reilly O’Toole and the veteran has completed 98 of 167 passes for 1,049 yards, nine touchdowns, and seven interceptions. The QB did show improvement in the last two games of the regular season, completing 35 of 53 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns against only one interception.
Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young share the load at running back. Ferguson, a junior from Naperville, Illinois, is a dual-threat back with 685 yards rushing (with eight touchdowns) and 373 yards receiving (with two TDs). Young, a senior, has 361 yards on the ground with five touchdowns.
The most impressive player for the Illini offense is freshman receiver Mike Dudek. Another Naperville product, the slot receiver pulled in 69 passes for 965 yards and six touchdowns. Dudek had a number of big games, including an eight-catch, 200-yard performance against Purdue and an 11-catch, 115-yard afternoon against Penn State. He shows off his ability in the slot on this well-executed corner route against Purdue:
Against the press alignment from the slot corner, Dudek utilizes a fierce in-and-out move to beat the coverage:
He then accelerates past the corner and away from the free safety for the reception:
The Illinois offense might have its hands full against the Louisiana Tech defense. The Bulldogs are a fast, attacking unit that specializes in generating turnovers. Louisiana Tech leads the nation in takeaways (40), interceptions (25), and points off turnovers (150). Ballhawk defensive backs Xavier Woods and Adairius Barnes each picked off five passes in 2014. Defensive lineman Vernon Butler led the Bulldogs with 13.5 tackles for a loss, while end Houston Bates led Louisiana Tech with 5.5 sacks, including this takedown of Rakeem Cato in the Conference USA championship game:
Louisiana Tech has Marshall in a 3rd and long situation. The nickel defense runs a double A gap cross blitz with linebackers Mitch Villemez and Barnes (aligned as a linebacker on this play):
Villemez draws both the center and right guard while Barnes hesitates. This creates a crease for the defensive end to exploit:
Barnes tracks down Cato for the sack to force Marshall to punt.
When Louisiana Tech Has the Football
Kenneth Dixon leads the way for the Bulldogs offense. The junior running back has scored a touchdown in every game except the opener against Oklahoma and has 21 TDs on the season. The Arkansas native ran for 1,236 yards on 240 carries in 2014, good for an average of 5.2 yards per attempt. He was strong down the stretch, with three-consecutive 100+ yard games to close out the season, including a 20-carry, 156-yard performance against Marshall that included three touchdowns. His first TD run against the Thundering Herd illustrates his vision and speed:
The RB sets up the play with his feet, implementing counter-steps to the left before angling to the right. He makes a sharp cut with his right leg through the off-tackle hole and then races to the end zone.
While Dixon is the workhorse, Cody Sokol leads the team from the pocket. The senior completed more than 58% of his passes in 2014 for 3,189 yards and 29 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions. Similar to Dixon, Sokol was at his best during the stretch run, throwing for 12 touchdowns in the final five games of the regular season. When he looks to throw, chances are he is searching for sophomore Trent Taylor, who led the Bulldogs with 62 catches for 814 yards and nine touchdowns.
Illinois’ defense is a concern, as the unit ranks 108th in FBS with 34 points allowed per game. The defense endured a brutal stretch mid-season, giving up 45 points to Nebraska, 38 points to Purdue and 38 points to Wisconsin during a three-game losing streak. The group buckled down during the last two victories but remains a question mark. Junior linebacker Mason Monheim leads the squad with 108 tackles, and senior defensive back Zane Petty was close behind with 104 stops. “Star” linebacker Earnest Thomas III (SS/LB hybrid) led the team with 4.5 sacks.
Illinois’s Justin DuVernois is the 13th-rated punter according to CBS Sports. Other potential draftees include Thomas III and center Alex Hill. For Louisiana Tech, LB Terrell Pinson and Bates are potential draft selections. In addition, many scouts are hoping that Dixon forgoes his senior season and declares for the draft after the game.
Hard to see the Big Ten representative pulling out a win in this game. The combination of Louisiana Tech’s aggressive defense and the one-two punch of Dixon and Sokol will be too much for the Illini.
Louisiana Tech 35, Illinois 17
All video and images courtesy ESPN.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.