DALLAS — Illinois needed to win its last two games to become bowl-eligible, then had to wait another week before finding out if there would be more football.
Louisiana Tech knew after winning six of seven at the end of the regular season that it was going to a bowl. And the Bulldogs have already played an extra week, a tight 26-23 loss to Marshall in the Conference USA championship game.
Now, the Illini (6-6) of the Big Ten and the Bulldogs (8-5) meet at noon Friday in the Heart of Dallas Bowl that is played at historic Cotton Bowl Stadium. It’s the first of 10 bowl games involving a Big Ten team, and the last of five for Conference USA.
“You want to go into your winter workouts with success, and you want your seniors to leave with success,” third-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “They have done a great job with this program. I’m proud of them. We have made strides from Day 1.”
This is the third time in five seasons the Illini go into a bowl 6-6. They won the previous two for a winning record, but that was before they went 6-18 in Beckman’s first two seasons.
Skip Holtz is wrapping up his second year at Tech, which last played in a bowl game in 2011. The Bulldogs overcame a 2-3 start that included games against Oklahoma and Auburn, then both top-five teams.
“We knew it was going to be a challenging start,” Holtz said. “We talked about we’re a work in progress as a young team, and we had to grow and develop as the year went on, and I felt like they really did that.”
The Bulldogs got a big boost from two graduate transfers: quarterback Cody Sokol and defensive end Houston Bates, who was a starter at Illinois before returning to his home state to finish his career. There was also the addition of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
“Kind of the land of misfit toys, when you look at Manny, myself, Houston Bates, Cody Sokol, that have all come together and really gelled to put together something pretty special this season,” Holtz said. “To have this group of people all come together in Year 1 and accomplish what we were able to accomplish, it’s been very rewarding as a coach.”
Close games and comebacks
Illinois trailed in the fourth quarter in four of its six wins. The Illini’s largest margin of victory was 47-33 at Northwestern in the regular-season finale that got them bowl-eligible. They had four wins by a combined 21 points.
“I’m so proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish, fighting through adversity, through the second half of that football season,” Beckman said.
Louisiana Tech had three three-point losses.
Beckman and Holtz both taught their teams some history, letting them know about some of the players, coaches and teams that have played at Cotton Bowl Stadium, even though the namesake game moved five years ago to the Dallas Cowboys’ NFL facility about 20 miles away.
The Bulldogs practiced this week at the high school of legendary running back Doak Walker, providing even another reference of football history for Holtz.
“I introduced my father to our players one time, and I heard one of the players say, ‘He’s the guy from ESPN.’ ... That’s how they know Lou Holtz, one of the talking heads on TV,” said Holtz, whose son who plays at Texas referred to champion boxer George Forman as the guy with a grill.
Kenneth Dixon has 3,347 yards rushing in his three seasons at Tech and needs only 6 yards in the bowl game to break Daniel Porter’s career school record. Dixon is just the third player in school history with multiple 1,000-yard seasons. He has 1,236 yards rushing this season with 21 touchdowns, 10 of those in the last four games.