RUSTON — Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon heads into his senior season, starting with Saturday night’s matchup against visiting Southern, as the nation’s leading active rusher with 3,410 yards. He’s already the program’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (53), total touchdowns (61) and rushing yards.

But it was a defensive play he made that saved the game and proved to be his fondest memory of the Bulldogs’ 35-18 victory over Illinois in December’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, an exclamation point on Tech’s surprising 9-5 season.

With Tech leading by three early in the fourth quarter at the Cotton Bowl, quarterback Cody Sokol fumbled in the pocket. Illinois defensive tackle Jihad Ward, all 6-foot-7, 286 pounds of him, grabbed the ball and started running toward the goal line.

He made it to the 16 before Dixon caught him and stripped the ball. Sokol, also hustling after the play, recovered the fumble. Five plays later, an exhausted Dixon scored from the 1 to cap a quick 84-yard drive and essentially ice the game.

“That was the pivotal point. What it shows you is how unselfish a player he is,” Tech running backs coach Jabbar Juluke said. “He won’t give up. He won’t let his teammates down.”

That play is one of Dixon’s personal favorites, right up there with his 99-yard touchdown run in last September’s 48-20 win at Louisiana-Lafayette and the swing pass he caught against Illinois that turned into an 80-yard touchdown.

“I think about it a lot,” he said. “In practice, we make it a competition to see who can get to a loose ball or a going-the-other-way ball first. I felt I could get there; I just couldn’t give up. We had to have it.”

He has been a fan favorite since a record-setting 2012 when, as a freshman out of Strong, Arkansas, he rushed for 27 touchdowns to break the freshman record held by Marshall Faulk. A bad knee limited his time as a sophomore when Tech finished 4-8 in coach Skip Holtz’s first season in Ruston, but Dixon stormed back last year in a faster, more powerful and talented offense to finish with 1,299 rushing yards and 385 receiving yards on 30 catches.

In no small part because of him, Tech is expected to contend for the Conference USA title this year. Ten or 11 wins wouldn’t shock anyone in the league.

“We’re confident in our two-deep. We’ve got more depth than we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Dixon said. “We’ve got a chance to be really good — if we take care of our business.”