Dallas, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Kenneth Dixon finished with two touchdowns to lift Louisiana Tech to a 35-18 victory over Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium on Friday.
Dixon rushed for 63 yards on 13 carries and also caught an 80-yard touchdown pass for the Bulldogs (9-5), who won their first bowl game since 2008.
"These football players have accomplished so much in this year, and (in) a year that no one expected much out of them with so many new faces and young guys," said Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz. "The way that they came in here, the way they competed, and the way we grew as a football team during the course of the year, this was the opportunity to finish this season the right way. And I couldn't be more proud of this football team, the way they competed."
Cody Sokol completed 14-of-28 passes for 247 yards and a score and Blake Martin and Jarred Craft each added rushing touchdowns in the win.
Reilly O'Toole threw for 290 yards on 23-of-38 passing with a touchdown pass to Jon Davis and an interception, while Donovonn Young had a rushing score for the Illini (6-7).
Illinois made it a one-possession game midway through the third quarter.
O'Toole avoided another three-and-out as he connected with Geronimo Allison on a 19-yard pass on 3rd-and-13. After a roughing the passer call kept the Bulldogs on the field and a 15-yard catch from Allison, Young ran for 11 yards down to the 3-yard line and plunged into the end zone for a 21-15 game with 6:04 remaining in the third.
Kyle Fischer missed a 44-yard field goal for the Bulldogs on the next series, but Illinois' David Reisner fared better after he got a favorable bounce off the right upright for a 43-yard field goal to cap a 10-play, 49-yard march and make it a 21-18 game less than a minute into the final stanza.
The Fighting Illini appeared to get a break during the following possession as LaKeith Walls knocked the ball out of Sokol's hands. Jihad Ward recovered the ball, but fumbled and Sokol came up with it to give the Bulldogs a fresh set of downs at their own 16.
Five plays later, Dixon blasted through the line and into the end zone for a 28-18 score with 6:15 remaining.
After holding Illinois to a three-and-out, Martin found a hole on the left side and ran 28 yards untouched into the end zone to cap the scoring for the Bulldogs with 3:43 to play.
Louisiana Tech started the scoring on its second drive of the day. Dixon's explosive 28-yard dash to Illinois' 35 kick-started the march. After Sokol ran for nine yards, his throw on 4th-and-1 was off the mark, but the drive was extended by a holding penalty.
Craft ran 16 yards was tackled just inside the pylon on the next play to make it a 7-0 game midway through the first.
On Illinois' ensuing drive, Mike Dudek's 50-yard run pushed the Fighting Illini deep into Louisiana Tech territory to help set up an eventual 27-yard field goal from Taylor Zalewski.
The Bulldogs needed just one play to extend their lead. Sokol hit Dixon in stride with a pass on the right side and Dixon raced 80 yards down the field for a 14-3 score.
Davis then sprinted across the middle of the field and hauled in a pass for a 25-yard touchdown to finish off a 5-play, 65-yard trek with 11:15 to play in the second. Zalewski's extra-point kick was no good after it hit off the upright.
Xavier Woods picked off O'Toole's pass over the middle and took it back 69 yards to give Louisiana Tech a 21-9 lead after finishing off the play with a spectacular dive into the end zone with 7:20 to play in the second.
"I think they've been very, very opportunistic in what they've done this year," Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said of Louisiana Tech. "I think that's the mark of a pretty darn good football team. "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've just got to be able to stop those better. So, no question, those were big huge plays in this football game."
After an intentional grounding penalty made it 3rd-and-23 for the Fighting Illini, Dudek made an 11-yard catch before David Reisner's kick from 46 yards out veered wide left with 1:07 left in the first half.
Dixon now has 3,410 career yards rushing, surpassing Daniel Porter for the most in school history ... Dixon has scored at least one touchdown in all 14 games this season ... Bulldogs defensive end Houston Bates had a monster game, compiling 5 1/2 sacks and seven tackles ... Louisiana Tech won the only other meeting between the two meetings by a 52-24 score on Sept. 22, 2012 ... The Bulldogs defeated Northern Illinois, 17-10, in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 28, 2008 ... Illinois outgained Louisiana Tech, 441-361.