- Josh Moyer, Penn State/Big Ten reporter
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Illinois couldn't overcome early mistakes -- and it couldn't stop Louisiana Tech and the big play during Friday afternoon's Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.
The Bulldogs scored three of the first four touchdowns thanks to an 80-yard pass, a 69-yard interception return and a 70-yard pass that set up a short run. And Illinois couldn't keep up with two missed field goals and a missed extra point in just the first half, as Louisiana Tech outmuscled the Illini 35-18.
It was the first bowl win for Louisiana Tech (9-5) since 2008, and the loss cemented the third straight losing season for Illinois (6-7).
Game ball goes to: Louisiana Tech defensive lineman Houston Bates. That's right, the game ball goes to the player who competed for Illinois last season before transferring to be closer to home. He wreaked havoc on the Illinois line all day, and he was a big reason Illini QB Reilly O'Toole wasn't overly comfortable in the pocket. He finished with 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. (Coming into the game, he led the Bulldogs with just 5.5 sacks on the season.) He didn't score two TDs like Kenneth Dixon and he didn't return an interception for a TD like Xavier Woods -- but he was consistent all game. No player deserves this more.
It was over when: Louisiana Tech capitalized on a crucial Illinois mistake midway through the fourth quarter. Illinois forced a fumble on a quarterback hit but then, during the fumble return, fumbled itself -- and Louisiana Tech recovered. The Bulldogs capitalized by completing a 70-yard pass just three plays later, which set up a short TD run. That gave Louisiana Tech a 10-point advantage.
Stat of the game: 0-for-16. Those were the two teams' total third-down conversion numbers into the third quarter; both teams were 0-for-8. Illinois stopped the trend by completing a 19-yard pass on third-and-13 on its second drive of the second half. The teams finished a combined 6-of-28.
Best play: Midway through the second quarter, O’Toole overthrew a pass that landed right in the waiting arms of Louisiana Tech defensive back Xavier Woods. The sophomore took a few steps to his right, then sprinted left and ran 69 yards for the touchdown -- complete with a dive at the end, which barely got him into the end zone.
That interception return changed the face of the game. Illinois trailed 14-9 and was driving downfield; Woods’ play put the score at 21-9.
It was the first bowl win for Louisiana Tech since 2008, and the loss cemented the third straight losing season for Illinois.