Mistakes Frustrate Illini In 35-18 Defeat
A few big plays thwarted Illinois’ hopes for an upset victory in a postseason bowl game.
Two untimely turnovers proved crucial to Louisiana Tech’s 35-18 defeat of the Fighting Illini in the Heart of Dallas Bowl Friday. The miscues offset a generally valiant effort by the Illinois defense, which stifled the high-octane Bulldogs offense for much of the game.
“It’s mostly just sad, because a lot of the guys are leaving, so it’s hard to say goodbye,” Illini defensive lineman Austin Teitsma said. “But, we are happy we made it this far and everyone is just really excited to keep it moving forward into next year.”
The Illini’s record fell to 6-7 overall, while Louisiana Tech finished 9-5. After a slow start, Illinois rallied to win its final two regular-season games to finish 6-6 and earn a bowl berth.
The second of the two big plays that swung the outcome of the game came late in the afternoon with Illinois down by a field goal.
Bulldogs running back Kenneth Dixon, expected by many to dominate the afternoon, made his biggest play of the game on defense.
With Louisiana Tech holding the ball near midfield and leading 21-18 lead in the fourth quarter, Illinois linebacker LaKeith Walls sacked quarterback Cody Sokol. The ball popped loose and was gathered up by Illini lineman Jihad Ward, who returned the fumble to the Bulldogs’ 16. But on the same play, Dixon forced Ward to drop the football, which was fallen on by Sokol.
Three plays later, Sokol connected with receiver Carlos Henderson on a 70-yard pass that set up a touchdown to keep Louisiana Tech in control of the game.
The Bulldogs' comfortable margin in the final score did not reflect the tone of the game, during which Illinois often slowed the vaunted Louisiana Tech offense. The Illini limited Louisiana Tech to 114 yards rushing and 247 yards passing, with much of those numbers coming late in the game after the outcome had been determined.
Illinois held the ball for 10 minutes longer than Tech and outgained the Bulldogs 451-361 overall.
The best individual numbers of the day were tallied by senior defensive end Houston Bates, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Bates recorded the most tackles for loss (5.5-35 yards) in Cotton Bowl Stadium history. Bates’ 4.5 sacks for a loss of 32 total yards brought his 2014 totals to 10 sacks for 79 yards.
Louisiana Tech led 14-3 after the first quarter and 21-9 at halftime. The biggest play of the first half was also an Illinois turnover.
idway through the second quarter, with the Illini trailing 14-9 and advancing into Bulldogs territory, a pass from quarterback Reilly O’Toole intended for wide receiver Michael Dudek was intercepted by defensive back Xavier Woods, who returned the pickoff 69 yards for a touchdown.
Some on the Illinois bench protested what seemed to them one or two missed penalty calls on the play, but the pick-six seemed to typify the snakebit quality that frustrated Illinois’ effort during the game.
“I was running a seam route,” Dudek said. “The guy grabbed a hold of me a little, but the ref saw what he saw and he didn’t call it. Reilly threw the ball where I was supposed to be, which I probably would have been had I not been held.”
O’Toole (24-39-1, 239, 1 TD) turned in a generally solid effort for the Illini in the senior’s last collegiate game. Malik Turner (6-84) and Dudek (7-73) led Illinois receivers.
On the ground, Ferguson rushed seven times for 50 yards, while Dudek also totaled 50 yards, all on one carry – a reverse that gave the Illini a first down at the Bulldogs’ 22. But the drive then stalled, leaving Illinois to settle for 27-yard field goal instead of a touchdown that could have tied the game at 7-7 late in the first quarter.
It was that kind of day for the Fighting Illini.
Game notes: The Heart of Dallas Bowl completed its fifth year at the Cotton Bowl Stadium. The bowl’s history began after the Cotton Bowl game was moved to Cowboys Stadium, now AT&T Stadium. The game features a team from Conference USA versus a Big 10 team. The Big 10 representative has yet to win a game in the series … The game was televised on ESPN … Paid attendance was 31,297.