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Illinois Fumbles Away Heart of Dallas Bowl

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Missed opportunities and questionable officiating led to the first December bowl defeat since 1992 for the Illini.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS -- Reilly O'Toole was like a bull.

In that when he saw red, he got mad. But it was an old friend who donned color - Houston Bates.

Bates came off the edge twice in the first quarter and left O'Toole picking himself up off the Cotton Bowl Stadium grass because of the efforts from the former Illini. Things got worse in the second half. Bates finished with a career-high 4 1/2 sacks - matched the number he had in three seasons at Illinois - and earned the game's Most Valuable Player honors as Louisana Tech prevailed 35-18 on Friday afternoon in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

It was the first bowl game loss for Illinois since the 2008 Rose Bowl and first December bowl game defeat since the 1992 Holiday Bowl. The win for Tech marked the first Power-5 Conference win for Conference USA this season and the first in a bowl win against a P-5 team since Houston defeated Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl in 2012.

"He hit me hard a couple times," O'Toole said of Bates during the post game press conference. "It was fun going against a friendly foe. Obviously, you wish you could have made a few more plays, but congrats to him. He's a great kid. We had a lot of fun at Illinois, so I'm a lot of guys on his team are loving his presence."

O'Toole was sacked a total of six times, but he didn't go out without a fight. He completed 24 of 39 passes for 295 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The pick six by Tech's Xavier Woods was his sixth of the season. The Bulldogs' safety intercepted O'Toole's pass midway through the second quarter, returning it 69 yards to the end zone.

The pass was intended for freshman wide receiver Mike Dudek.

"Lot of people told me I was getting held on that play," Dudek said. "I just try to run my routes to the best of my ability. The ref saw what he saw. He didn't make the call, so you just got to move forward." Wood's interception put the Illini in a 21-9 hole at halftime.

Donovonn Young responded with a 3-yard touchdown run. The 2-point conversion failed, but backup kicker David Reisner banked in a 43-yard field goal off the left post to cut the lead to three, 21-18 with 14:01 left in the game.

Illiinois appeared to have finally caught a break when linebacker LaKeith Walls sacked Cody Sokol, causing a fumble. Jihad Ward scooped up the ball  - with no Tech players nearby - and returned it 19 yards before Tech running back Kenneth Dixon forced him to fumble and Sokol recovered.

If Ward doesn't fumble the Illini may tie the game on a field goal or score a go-ahead touchdown. Instead, the Bulldogs drove 84 yards in five plays, capped by a 1-yard scoring run by Dixon to increase the lead to 10 with 6:15 left.

"We never tell our kids, 'Fall on the ground right away or anything like that,'" defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "If you're in traffic, you prefer him to cover it up. At the end of the day, if you score, everyone's happy, and obviously, if he turns it over, you're disappointed. We just have to protect the ball. That could have happened to anybody. He'll learn from it, and not just him, our whole team. It's something we'll build upon and get better at."

Dixon ran for 63 yards and two touchdowns. He leads the nation with 13 straight games with a score and is now the all-time scorer in Tech's program history with 366 points.

In the second quarter, Dudek caught a 12-yard pass from O'Toole to surpass the 1,000 yards mark. He is just the sixth Illini to do so and first true freshman.

Penalties were a common factor for Illinois as they racked up eight for 53 yards in the first half alone. Tech was only penalized once in opening stanza and ended up with six penalties for 45 yards. The Illini had nine for 68 yards. The officiating crew for Friday's game will also work the Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Alabama on New Year's Day in the second College Football Playoff national semifinal game.

"Wow, it's hard to comment on some of those penalties," coach Tim Beckman said. "I'll just keep it at that. I'm glad that group is doing the Sugar Bowl with coach (Urban) Meyer."

The kicking game also was an issue for the Illini. Taylor Zalewski made a 27-yard field goal to put Illinois on the board with 3:46 left in the first quarter, but missed a 42-yard field goal and a PAT attempt after Jon Davis' 25-yard touchdown catch. Following Young's touchdown run, Illini elected for a 2-point conversion instead of giving Zalewski or Reisner a PAT attempt.

Young finished with 18 yards on six carriers. Josh Ferguson had seven carriers, rushing for 50 yards, the same amount of yards Dudek had on a pitch from O'Toole.

Malik Turner had his best game of the season in the closing quarter. He finished with six catches for 84 yards. Geronimo Allison added 72 yards on four catches and Dudek pulled in seven for 73 yards.

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