Illinois-Louisiana Tech Preview
If beating Penn State and Northwestern allowed Tim Beckman to keep his job, getting Illinois past high-scoring Louisiana Tech might earn him an extension.
That won't be an easy task for the Fighting Illini, who will try to back up their coach's renewed confidence in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Friday against a Bulldogs team that forced more turnovers than anyone in the country.
Illinois was 1-5 in the Big Ten and 4-6 overall in the middle of November, dropping Beckman to 10-24 in Champaign, and it looked like the third-year coach was on his way out.
All it took was a couple of wins to allow that to change as the Illini secured their first bowl bid since 2011. Illinois beat Penn State 16-14 on Nov. 22 to keep its postseason hopes alive, then throttled Northwestern 47-33 in Evanston a week later by running for 291 yards - the most in Beckman's tenure.
"A month ago, you didn't think we had a chance," Beckman said after Illinois accepted its trip to the fifth installment of this game, which will be played in the Cotton Bowl. "It's kind of a giggle now. When people doubt you and you prove them wrong, it's very rewarding."
Athletic director Mike Thomas announced the day after the win over Northwestern that Beckman, whose contract runs through the 2016 season, would be retained. An extension was not discussed.
It was easy to doubt Louisiana Tech (8-5) after it went 4-8 in Skip Holtz's first season on the sidelines, and the Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth in Conference USA's West division in 2014.
Instead, they won it. Louisiana Tech clinched the West by blasting Rice 76-31 on Nov. 29, then led nearly the entire way in the conference championship game before a late Marshall touchdown gave the Thundering Herd a 26-23 victory.
Six players, including five starters, were declared academically ineligible before that game. Right tackle Mitchell Bell, left guard Tre Carter, defensive tackle Aaron Brown, linebackers Tony Johnson and Terrell Pinson and reserve running back Tevin King won't be eligible to face Illinois, either.
"Our eyes are on the front and not the back," junior running back Kenneth Dixon said. "We just have to look forward and keep pushing. I mean, lift weights and practice and preparing for the bowl game."
Dixon is the Bulldogs' best player, and his 26 touchdowns - 10 of which came over the last four games - are the third-most in the country. He should be salivating at the chance to face Illinois' run defense, which allowed 249.6 yards per game - sixth-worst in the nation.
The Illini also finished last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (33.9 points per game) and total defense (464.3 ypg), but Beckman credits that side of the football with getting his team to the postseason.
"I will say this: In the big games that we've had in the second half of the football season, the Minnesota game, the Penn State game and the Northwestern game - if you look at them stat-wise - the defense won you those football games," Beckman said.
Illinois has the worst average point differential (minus-9.0) of any team that's playing in a bowl, and now it's facing a Louisiana Tech team that ranked 12th in the FBS with 37.5 points per game and takes the ball away better than anyone.
The Bulldogs forced 40 turnovers, 31 of which came over their final eight games. That's three more than the Illini have forced in their last 32 games under Beckman.
There were plenty of giveaways in Beckman's fourth contest on the sidelines in Champaign, though. Louisiana Tech gave it away three times, but Illinois committed six turnovers for the first time in nine years in a 52-24 loss.
Then-sophomore Reilly O'Toole completed 19 of 25 passes for just 120 yards for the Illini that day, when he didn't have a receiving threat like Mike Dudek. The freshman has 69 receptions and is 35 yards away from becoming the first Illinois receiver to hit 1,000 since A.J. Jenkins in 2011.
Throwing on the Bulldogs won't be easy. Louisiana Tech is tied for the most interceptions in the nation with 25, with Adairius Barnes and Xavier Woods leading the way with five apiece.
The Bulldogs lost their last postseason game, 31-24 to TCU, in the 2011 Poinsettia Bowl, and haven't won one since beating Northern Illinois in the 2008 Independence Bowl.
The Illini won their past two postseason trips - the 2011 Fight Hunger Bowl over UCLA and the 2010 Texas Bowl against Baylor - after also going into each of those matchups at 6-6.