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Heart of Dallas Bowl Preview: LA Tech vs. Illinois

Louisiana Tech (8-5) and Illinois face off at 12:00 p.m. CT on ESPN. Illinois will turn to senior quarterback Reilly O'Toole as the Fighting Illini try to get back to 7 wins for the first time since 2011.

Reilly O'Toole will look to help Illinois run past Louisiana Tech.
Reilly O'Toole will look to help Illinois run past Louisiana Tech.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

O'Toole has thrown for 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions since taking over in the middle of the season for the injured Wes Lunt. Lunt came back to play against Iowa and Penn State late in the season, but the Illini coaching staff believes O'Toole, the senior from Wheaton, IL, gives their team the best chance to win.

His arm isn't the most dangerous thing about O'Toole - that would be his legs. He has only thrown for 1,049 yards, but he has rushed for another 261.  He rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown in a win over Minnesota and he ran wild on Northwestern to the tune of 147 yards on 21 attempts.

Minnesota's rush defense ranks 61st in the country and Northwestern is ranked 70th. Facing the number one rush defense in the country, Penn State, O'Toole ran for just 8 yards on 4 carries.

Still, Illinois was able to grind out a 16-14 win over Penn State. That's exactly what the Illini faithful are hoping for as they face off against the #15 rush defense in the country, Louisiana Tech.

The game plan is simple: Illinois has to find a way to grind out yards and O'Toole has to complete enough passes on third down to keep the chains moving. Illinois can't afford to turn the ball over. Louisiana Tech leads the nation in turnovers forced with 40.

For the Bulldogs, they have to find a way to get those turnovers against Illinois. The Bulldogs struggle to score when faced with a long field. This proved true against Marshall, as Tech scored early and often after turnovers gave them a short field. In the second half, the Bulldogs offense shut down.

While Louisiana Tech ranks 5th in the country in turnover margin, Illinois is tied for 75th. Illinois can't afford turnovers because they won't likely blow up the scoreboard with points. Illinois is ranked 102nd in the country in total offense with just 360 yards per game. Their passing offense ranks 51st, but most of their yards through the air came from Wes Lunt, who will be sitting on the bench.

Illinois ranks 112th in total defense, giving up 464 yards per game. You would think a team that bad on offense and on defense, along with a negative turnover margin, would be an awful team. That is not the case.

Illinois ground out two solid wins late in the year against Penn State and Northwestern. Earlier in the year, they beat Minnesota, who finished the season 8-4. Their only bad loss is to Purdue, and their other losses were to teams with winning records. Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa are all part of the Illini's tough schedule.

Going back to 2011, Illinois lost their final 6 regular season games before knocking off UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. That same year, Louisiana Tech was on a 7-game winning streak before losing to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. The point is - bowl season changes everything. Who wants to be there and play and who is just happy to be there and soak up the experience?

The two teams faced off in 2012, when most of the players on both teams were either bench players or not yet on the team. Louisiana Tech won 52-24 and started Illinois on a 9-game losing streak to finish that season.

One player who did not play in that game was Houston Bates. Bates was a defensive end for Illinois at the time and now he suits up for Louisiana Tech.

Bates will be going against an Illini offensive line that is down to 7 players. Ted Karras and Peter Cvijanovic are both starters who are out with injuries for Illinois, who will be charged with keeping Bates and Co. out of the backfield.

O'Toole was 19-25 for 120 yards and no touchdowns in the 2012 game after coming in off the bench. He will be facing a totally different Louisiana Tech defense, although Tech did force 6 turnovers in that game.

The line for the Heart of Dallas Bowl opened with Louisiana Tech as a 3-point favorite and it has now moved to the Bulldogs being a 6-point favorite.

For Louisiana Tech, you can talk about Cody Sokol and Kenneth Dixon, but the whole game boils down to turnovers. Tech ranked 61st in total offense with 404 yards per game. Tech had the benefit of getting the short field so many times that they didn't need to put up very many yards in order to score. Tech ranked 12th in scoring offense with 37.5 points per game.

Louisiana Tech does have a healthy group of wide receivers for Sokol to throw to, and that might be the first time all season. Paul Turner has come on strong of late and Dallas native Hunter Lee is back from a collarbone injury. Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson have had great seasons and Sterling Griffin, who was Mr. Reliable early in the season, should be back in form after only grabbing three passes in Tech's final 6 games. Griffin had an acrobatic 30 yard catch in the second half against Marshall.

Like Illinois, the Bulldogs will also be shorthanded on the offensive line as Mitchell Bell and Tre Carter are suspended. Tech had a little heads up and they were able to work in some new players against Rice and Marshall. Dallas native Josh Robinson looked good at right tackle and both David Mahaffey and Jens Danielson have plenty of experience off the bench. Senior Richard Greenwalt, another experienced player, is likely to start at right guard.

At linebacker, Tech is without starters Terrell Pinson and Tony Johnson. Mitch Villamez and Nick Thomason played well against Marshall and Tech is likely to play a lot of 4-2-5 defense due to their depth in the secondary.

Thomason will especially have to be ready to play as Illinois is likely to run early and often. The redshirt junior has 50 tackles on the season, mostly as a reserve. Villamez has 43 tackles, and reserve Beau Fitte has 36.

On offense, Cody Sokol will try to bounce back after a subpar second half against Marshall. The senior transfer from Iowa was dealing with a sore shoulder and a wet ball, but he will certainly want to get that negative taste out of his mouth.

Kenneth Dixon, who has rushed for 1,236 yards and 21 TDs this season, will also be wanting a little redemption. The junior had 16 carries for 71 yards and a score in the Cotton Bowl Stadium against Army last season, but Tech lost 35-16 in another game that was marred by rain.

Louisiana Tech is the favorite in this game and I can't see Illinois putting up enough offense to win it. The Bulldogs will likely treat O'Toole like they did other dual-threat quarterbacks, like they did Terrance Broadway of ULL and Jameill Showers of UTEP. Broadway rushed for 641 yards on the season, but Tech shut the Cajuns down in a 48-20 win. In a 55-3 thrashing of the Miners, Tech held Showers to -16 yards rushing, but he finished with 312 on the season.

This should be a day for the Bulldogs, especially the defense. Illinois is a solid team, but O'Toole is not likely to win the game with his arm. If the Illini aren't able to move the ball in the first half, I wouldn't be surprised to see Wes Lunt enter the game and try to get his team back on track through the air.

Prediction: Louisiana Tech 28, Illinois 20