Dallas, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs look to take down a power five conference team when they take on the Big Ten's Illinois Fighting Illini in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which will be held at the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 26.
The Bulldogs finished as the top team in Conference-USA's West Division this season, going 8-5 overall and 7-1 in conference play. LaTech had a chance for the C-USA outright title, but lost to Marshall in the championship game, 33-26, back on Dec. 6.
Illinois, meanwhile, is coming into the game thanks to a win in its regular- season finale against Northwestern, 47-33. The victory made the Illini bowl eligible at 6-6 and improved the team's conference mark to 3-5, which was fifth best in the Big Ten.
LaTech sits in a good spot to pick up just its third bowl win in its seventh try (2-3-1). The Bulldogs recorded four more wins in 2014 than they did in head coach Skip Holtz's first season at the helm in 2013.
The Bulldogs ranked fourth in most-improved scoring offense with a 102.1 percent improvement, going from an average of 19.2 points per game in 2013 to a current average of 37.5 points per game this season.
Running back Kenneth Dixon leads the Bulldog offense. He rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns against Marshall to improve his season total to 1,238 yards and 21 touchdowns. For his career, Dixon has amassed 3,347 rushing yards with 52 touchdowns on the ground in 35 games.
As a team, the Bulldogs offense averages 403.8 yards per game, going for 151.2 on the ground and 252.6 through the air. Redshirt senior quarterback Cody Sokol threw for 3,189 yards with 29 touchdowns and 13 picks this season. He was named the C-USA's Newcomer of the Year after transferring in from Iowa.
"It all starts with Cody Sokol," said Holtz. "He came in and did a great job of getting players to buy in, setting a real example as a leader with his toughness and the way he plays the game."
Sokol's favorite target was sophomore wide receiver Trent Taylor, who hauled in a team-high 62 catches for 814 yards with nine scores.
On the defensive side of the ball, Louisiana Tech is the national leader in points off of turnovers. With 14 points off of turnovers in the Marshall game, the Bulldogs have scored 164 points off turnovers in 13 games this season (12.6 points per game). Last season, Louisiana Tech scored only 64 points off turnovers the entire year (5.3 points a game).
This will be a nice opportunity for starting defensive end Houston Bates, who transferred to the Bulldogs from Illinois. A fifth-year transfer to the Bulldog program, Bates is a previous All-Big Ten Conference selection. He started all 13 games for the Bulldogs with 28 total tackles to his credit including 10.5 tackles for a loss of 55 yards, 5.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, two pass break-ups and a team-leading 12 QB hurries.
The Bulldog's last bowl win came in 2008 when they defeated Northern Illinois in the Independence Bowl.
Illinois had to win three of its last five games to even become bowl eligible and the program had a real gut check to get there.
"There came a point in time right before we played Minnesota where we gathered up as a team and had to go one direction or the other," said Illinois head coach Tim Beckman. "We could either step forward, meet the challenge and attack the Minnesota Golden Gophers or we could just give in. This football team was not going to do that."
It was important for Beckman's squad to earn its first bowl bid since 2011, despite the lack of overall success this season.
"We needed to get to a bowl game, our program needs those types of things to move forward," Beckman added. "I cannot tell you the excitement that is in Champaign and in our facility with our athletic department to earn a bowl game down here in Dallas."
Offensively, Illinois boasts one of the top passing offenses in the Big Ten, ranking third in the conference in passing yards per game (243.2) and completion percentage (61.2 percent) and fifth in passing efficiency. Beckman has done it with a QB competition approach.
Senior Reilly O'Toole was under center for the last two games, both wins, but Wes Hunt and Aaron Bailey are also getting action in practices leading up to the bowl game.
O'Toole finished the season completing 58.7 percent of his passes for 1,049 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions in 12 games. Lunt completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 1,729 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions in seven games.
Despite who plays under center, wideout Mike Dudek appears to be everyone's favorite target, hauling in a team-best 69 catches for 965 yards with six TDs.
The Illini averages 26.6 points per game with Josh Ferguson leading the way on the ground. He has run for 685 yards and eight scores. Donovonn Young has added five TDs on the ground.
This is a rematch of a 2012 meeting between the two schools that saw Louisiana Tech roll to a 52-24 win in Champaign, Ill. Louisiana Tech is 2-2 all-time against the Big Ten and has won its last two meetings against Big Ten opponents. Prior to Tech's 52-24 win over Illinois in 2012, the Bulldogs topped Michigan State, 20-19, in East Lansing on Sept. 13, 2003.
These school have a common opponent this year in Western Kentucky. Louisiana Tech dismantled the Hilltoppers, 59-10, on Nov. 1, while Illinois beat WKU, 42-34, on Sept. 6 in Champaign.