THE WHEN AND WHERE
Game: The Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl
Time: 12:00 PM Central Time - Friday, December 26th
Place: Cotton Bowl - Dallas, Texas
THE GAME POSTER
Merry Christmas and happy holidays!
Over one-third of Louisiana Tech's points scored this season have come off of turnovers. Yes, that's 164 out of their 488 points on drives started following an interception or a fumble. We'll get to the defense's ability to force turnovers later, but this is actually good news for Illinois, because they have been great at avoiding turnovers with Reilly O'Toole over the last several games.
The LA Tech offense has been average at best this season, with former Iowa quarterback Cody Sokol at the helm. Louisiana Tech has about a 50-50 run-pass split this year in their play-calling. This, plus the fact that they're usually in the lead, would indicate that the Bulldogs are a pass-first team, but not overwhelmingly biased either way. Expect them to focus more on the run game than usual after watching film of the Illini defense.
Running back Kenneth Dixon leads the Bulldog ground game with 240 attempts on the year for 1236 net yards (5.2 yards per carry). He also has 21 rushing touchdowns to go with five receiving touchdowns, making him the third-highest scorer in college football this season. You may remember him from Illinois' game against LA Tech a couple years ago; he had 12 carries for 57 yards in that contest. Dixon has one thing in common with a lot of other Big Ten backs: he's going to rush for over 100 yards against the Illini.
QB Cody Sokol has been good-not-great this season for LA Tech, completing almost 3,000 yards worth of passes but doing so with only a 58.6 completion percentage. Sokol has thrown for 29 touchdowns as well, which shows where LA Tech shines: converting scoring opportunities into touchdowns. Louisiana Tech ranks 12th in the country in touchdown rate in the red zone, scoring six points on over 71 percent of their RZ opportunities.
The keys for the Illini defenses in this game are to slow the running game with their superior athleticism and hopefully keep the Bulldogs to field goal attempts from the red zone. Louisiana Tech has some speedy receivers whom they'll likely target with quick passes to keep Illinois honest, but that's no excuse. LA Tech will have a couple big plays regardless of how well Illinois plays, but Illinois needs to prevent them from sustaining and finishing long drives.
LA Tech's defense is basically without comparison among non-Power Five schools. They thrive on big plays. The Bulldogs are fourth in the nation in turnover margin, with a ridiculous plus-15 mark for the season. LA Tech is tied with Louisville for the most interceptions in the nation, led by great defensive backs like Xavier Woods and Kentrell Brice. Imagining Reilly O'Toole's rather duck-like throws against a ball-hawking secondary like this gives me the willies, but there isn't much the Illini can do about that now.
Speaking of quarterbacks, I'd expect Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey to get a couple snaps each in this game, especially if it's not close. They could use the reps and we know Bill Cubit is going to want a few tricks up his sleeves. Plays involving multiple quarterbacks or just one of Bailey and Lunt could help keep the Bulldogs on their hind legs.
Sadly, the running game doesn't have much better prospects than passing. Louisiana Tech is once again fourth in the nation in total tackles for loss this season, with 102. Powerful defensive tackle Vernon Butler leads LA Tech with 13.5 tackles for loss this season, 12.5 of those coming on running plays (!). Former Illini Houston Bates is second on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading 5.5 sacks.
Ultimately the success of the Illinois offense is going to come down to the success rate of the running game. Hopefully the offensive line can use their size advantage to push the ball downfield. I'd love to see Illinois use a lot of the read option with O'Toole and Bailey in this game, hopefully optioning off Houston Bates and Vernon Butler to essentially eliminate them from the play. Expect Illinois to score a couple times, but points will almost certainly be hard to come by against the formidable Bulldogs.
The bottom line is that Louisiana Tech's defense has been one of the best in the nation throughout the year, admittedly against mostly questionable opposition. The team has been inconsistent, but the Bulldogs are capable of shutting down many major conference offenses, perhaps including the sub-par Illinois unit. This game will likely come down to the match-up between the Illini defense and LA Tech's offense.
If the Bulldogs successfully run the ball and avoid turnovers, they'll control the game and win. If Cody Sokol makes a couple errant throws (he very well might) and the Illinois defense uses their size advantage to limit the run game as best as possible, the Illini can certainly emerge victorious here. I'll predict a close game, with Illinois ultimately coming out the victor, but a Louisiana Tech win would absolutely not be a surprise. ALSO: